500 Greatest Albums List (2003)
The RS 500 was assembled by the editors of Rolling Stone, based on the results of two extensive polls. In 2003, Rolling Stone asked a panel of 271 artists, producers, industry executives and journalists to pick the greatest albums of all time. In 2009, we asked a similar group of 100 experts to pick the best albums of the 2000s. From those results, Rolling Stone created this new list of the greatest albums of all time.
Read the New 500 Greatest Albums of All Time List Published in 2020
Jay-Z, ‘Reasonable Doubt’
"The studio was like a psychiatrist's couch for me," Jay-Z told Rolling Stone, and his debut is full of a hustler's dreams and laments. It established Jay as the premier freestyle rapper of his generation and includes a filthy guest appearance from a 16-year-old Foxy Brown on "Ain't No Nigga."
R.E.M., ‘Automatic for the People’
Warner Bros., 1992
"It doesn't sound a whole lot like us," warned guitarist Peter Buck, but that was the point of R.E.M.'s eighth album. Largely acoustic, and with string parts arranged by Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones, this musical left turn finds a haunted beauty.
Ornette Coleman, ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’
Coleman's sound was so out-there, one audience at an early gig threw his sax over a cliff. He pioneered free jazz: no chords, no harmony, any player can take the lead – music as lyrical as it is demanding, particularly on "Lonely Woman."
Grateful Dead, ‘Live Dead’
Warner Bros., 1969
After two expensive studio albums put them $100,000 in debt, this live set was more than just cheap, it was pivotal. For the Dead, the magic happened onstage, as demonstrated by the glorious 23-minute jam-outs on "Dark Star" and a raging, 15-minute cover of Bobby Bland's "(Turn On Your) Love Light."
The Mothers of Invention, ‘Freak Out!’
A master guitarist and provocateur, Frank Zappa made more than 60 albums, but the first was perhaps the most groundbreaking. The double disc declared the arrival of a visionary weirdo who dabbled in doo-wop, pop-song parody, protest tunes, art rock and avant-garde classical.
Jerry Lee Lewis, ‘All Killer, No Filler!’
Eminem, ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’
Black Sabbath, ‘Black Sabbath’
Warner Bros., 1970
Recorded in a single 12-hour blurt by a hippie-leaning former blues band, this lumbering debut conjured up a new, sludgy sound: the birth pains of heavy metal. The slide guitar on "The Wizard" and the grungy boogie of "Wicked World" would influence not only future metal spawn but even the sound of Nirvana.
"It's good to be raw," said Run, and the metallic guitar powering "Rock Box" proved it. Run-D.M.C.'s debut ditches early rap's party rhymes to codify B-boy style and make history, from the way they dress to their hard beats to the everyday subject matter of "It's Like That."
The Replacements, ‘Let It Be’
Copping a Beatles title was cheeky; attaching it to a post-punk masterpiece was a sign of maturity. Songs like "I Will Dare" sizzle with ambition. Mixing punk and country with wry lyrics, "Unsatisfied" sounds like Paul Westerberg demanding more of himself and of his band. He got it.
Steely Dan, ‘Can’t Buy a Thrill’
Working as hired songwriters by day, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker rehearsed this debut in executives' offices by night. "We play rock & roll, but we swing," said Becker. For proof, check the cool lounge-jazz rhythms of "Do It Again" and the hot guitar of "Reelin' in the Years."
Madonna, ‘Like a Prayer’
"I like the challenge of merging art and commerce," Madonna said. She won artistic recognition with her most personal set of songs, including "Till Death Do Us Part" and "Oh Father"; commerce with "Express Yourself" and the title track, whose video had the Vatican talking about blasphemy.
Howlin’ Wolf, ‘Howlin’ Wolf’
Chicago blues at its raunchy best, "The Rocking Chair Album" features an outrageous set of sex songs written by Willie Dixon, including "Shake for Me," "The Red Rooster" and "Back Door Man." In 1971, on The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions, Wolf finally taught an enraptured Eric Clapton how to play "The Red Rooster."
The Who, ‘The Who Sings My Generation’
The Who debuted in maximum R&B mode: power-chorded reductions of James Brown ballads. When a manager badgered Pete Townshend into beefing up his laid-back demo of "My Generation," the resulting explosion knocked a hole in the future.
Jackie Wilson, ‘Mr. Excitement!’
Wilson was a knockout live performer who made R&B that rocked and sang ballads with a voice, said arranger Dick Jacobs, "like honey on moonbeams." The highlight of this three-disc set – which spans from the Fifties to the Seventies – is the endless build of "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher."
Patsy Cline, ‘The Ultimate Collection’
She died in a plane crash at 30, but Cline made her mark as one of country's great singers. "Walkin' After Midnight" and "I Fall to Pieces" also made the pop charts, and her version of "Crazy" was a godsend to struggling writer Willie Nelson.
Simon and Garfunkel, ‘Bookends’
Paul Simon called this "the quintessential Simon and Garfunkel album." It is certainly far-ranging – a mostly dark, beautifully written voyage that includes both the epic "America" and the Graduate theme, "Mrs. Robinson." The duo produced the record themselves, with brilliant restraint.
The Byrds, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’
The Kinks, ‘The Kink Kronikles’
Covering 1966 to 1970, this double-disc set anthologizes the second act in the Kinks' venerable career. Observational narratives such as "Waterloo Sunset" reveal Ray Davies to be a master miniaturist.
Queen, ‘A Night at the Opera’
Freddie Mercury wanted Queen to be "the Cecil B. DeMille of rock," and this is where the band let its over-the-top tendencies loose – especially on "Bohemian Rhapsody," the most operatic rock song ever.
Bonnie Raitt, ‘Nick of Time’
After being dumped by her previous label, veteran blues rocker Raitt exacted revenge with this multiplatinum Grammy-award winner. Producer Don Was helped her sharpen the songs without sacrificing any of her slide-guitar fire. And as Raitt herself pointed out, her 10th try was "my first sober album."
Aerosmith, ‘Toys in the Attic’
This is where Aerosmith perfected their raunchy blues-rock sound, with guitarist Joe Perry laying down some of the Seventies' most indelible riffs on "Walk This Way" and "Sweet Emotion," and Steven Tyler stepping up with scads of dirtbag swagger and unforgettable songs about his favorite topic: sex.
Eric B. and Rakim, ‘Paid in Full’
4th and Broadway/Island, 1987
Laid-back, diamond-sharp: Old-school titan Rakim may still lead the race for Best Rapper Ever, and this album is a big reason why. Paid in Full was one of the first hip-hop records to fully embrace Seventies funk samples on stone classics such as "I Know You Got Soul" and the title track.
Kurt Cobain himself acknowledged the Pixies' influence on the soft/loud dynamic that powered "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Doolittle is a mix of the band's earlier hardcore storms, Black Francis' selfdescribed "stream of unconsciousness" rants, and the strange melodicism and surf-metal guitar that defined its creepy magic.
Bruce Springsteen, ‘Nebraska’
Recorded on a four-track in Springsteen's bedroom, the songs on Nebraska were stark, spooky acoustic demos that he decided to release "bare." Packed with shadowy hard-luck tales of underdogs, it ends with "Reason to Believe," one of those songs where Springsteen's search for faith inspires faith itself.
Green Day, ‘American Idiot’
The Nineties' irrepressible punk brats grew up with a bang, proving they could take on the kind of gargantuan old-school concept album that nobody else seemed to have the guts to try anymore. Billie Joe Armstrong raged against the political complacency of Bush-era America with ferocity and a Who-size sense of grandeur.
Neil Diamond, ‘The Neil Diamond Collection’
This pop-rock star's melodramatic delivery is a guilty pleasure that never gets less pleasurable – or less guilty – than when he's belting "Sweet Caroline," "Cherry, Cherry" or "I Am … I Said."
U2 were on the cusp of becoming one of the Eighties' most important groups when their third album came out. It's the band's most overtly political album, with songs about Poland's Solidarity movement ("New Year's Day") and Irish unrest ("Sunday Bloody Sunday") charged with explosive, passionate guitar rock.
Professor Longhair, ‘New Orleans Piano’
There may never have been a funnier, sunnier piano player. His rolling, rumba-tinged style, yodeling vocals and whistling make tracks such as "Tipitina" swinging blasts of joy. New Orleans Piano collects Atlantic singles from 1949 to 1953, including the ultimate party anthem, "Mardi Gras in New Orleans."
My Bloody Valentine, ‘Loveless’
A shoegazer masterpiece, the fourth MBV album reportedly cost £250,000 to make. It was worth every penny, expanding the possibilities of noise-as-melody by combining dizzying guitar drone and Bilinda Butcher’s ethereal vocals.
The Meters, ‘Look-Ka Py Py’
Beastie Boys, ‘License to Ill’
Def Jam, 1986
Recorded when the New York rap trio were barely out of high school, Licensed to Ill remains a revolutionary combination of hip-hop beats, metal riffs and some of the most exuberant, unapologetic smart-aleck rhymes ever made. It became the bestselling rap album of the Eighties.
The Smiths, ‘The Queen Is Dead’
Sire/Rough Trade, 1986
The original kings of British mope rock could have earned that title on the basis of this album alone. The Smiths' most tuneful record is full of emulsifying rage ("The Queen Is Dead"), epic sadness ("There Is a Light That Never Goes Out") and strummy social commentary ("Frankly, Mr. Shankly").
Bobby Bland, ‘Two Steps From the Blues’
Bland's stirring, guttural howl is epitomized by "Little Boy Blue" and "Cry, Cry, Cry," which erase any distinction between blues and soul. "I Pity the Fool" and "Lead Me On" may just be some of the purest, most heartbroken singing you'll ever hear.
Bo Diddley, ‘Bo Diddley/Go Bo Diddley’
Diddley's influence is inestimable, from the off-kilter thump of "Pretty Thing" to his revved-up blues singing. This album – a repackaging of his first two records – has many of his best singles, including "I'm a Man" and "Who Do You Love?"
New York Dolls, ‘New York Dolls’
"Could you make it with Frankenstein?" they asked, not kidding. Glammed-out punkers the New York Dolls snatched riffs from Chuck Berry and Fats Domino and fattened them with loads of attitude and reverb. Produced by Todd Rundgren, songs like "Personality Crisis" and "Bad Girl" drip with sleaze and style.
Ike and Tina Turner, ‘Proud Mary: The Best of Ike and Tina Turner’
On early singles like "A Fool in Love," Tina Turner has wild power and raw vulnerability. Then come the rock & roll covers, the Seventies funk and "River Deep, Mountain High." Amazing.
The Rolling Stones, ‘Tattoo You’
Tattoo You was lean, tough and bluesy – the Stones relying on their strengths, as if they'd matured into the kind of surefire bluesmen they'd idolized as kids. It spent nine weeks at Number One on the strength of "Start Me Up," in which Mick Jagger snuck the line "You make a dead man come" onto the radio.
Pavement, ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’
Pavement's second album was about love and rock & roll, with bouncy pop, stretches of lyrical noise and "Range Life," which slagged the Smashing Pumpkins while searching for the right way to settle down.
Pink Floyd, ‘Wish You Were Here’
The follow-up to The Dark Side of the Moon was another essay on everyday lunacy – capped by the liquid-rock suite "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," a poignant allusion to errant ex-member Syd Barrett.
Neil Young With Crazy Horse, ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’
Young and Crazy Horse had been together for only a couple of months when they cut Nowhere – and the jammy outing sounds that way, in the best sense possible.
Pearl Jam, ‘Ten’
When their debut came out, Pearl Jam were competing with Nirvana in a grunge popularity contest they were bound to lose. Yet Ten was just as key in reshaping hard rock: Eddie Vedder's shaky, agonized growl and Mike McCready's wailing guitar solos on "Alive" and "Jeremy" push both songs to the brink and back again.
Cat Stevens, ‘Tea for the Tillerman’
Chamber-pop arrangements made this the British folkie's most ambitious album. And his toughest: "Wild World" and "Hard-Headed Woman" find Stevens condemning his ex, Patti D'Arbanville – who later shacked up with Mick Jagger.
"Black Magic Woman," the Top Five hit from Abraxas, is definitive Santana: Afro-Latin grooves and piercing lyrical psychedelic blues guitar. It was a cover of a Fleetwood Mac song written by one of Carlos Santana's guitar heroes, Peter Green. The album's other hit was also a cover: Tito Puente's "Oye Como Va."
Prince, ‘Dirty Mind’
Warner Bros., 1980
A mix of slinky funk, synth-driven rock, jittery pop and sexual innuendo, Dirty Mind is a New Wave R&B masterwork. It includes the world's merriest done-me-wrong song, "When You Were Mine," and the incest ditty "Sister." "I wasn't being deliberately provocative," Prince said. "I was being deliberately me."
Cream, ‘Wheels of Fire’
Half studio album, half live album, Wheels of Fire not only has the definitive Cream tune – "White Room" – but it is also incontrovertible proof of Eric Clapton's interpretive mastery. "Crossroads," a live reworking of Robert Johnson's haunted blues classic, features one of the most blazing guitar solos ever recorded.
Bob Dylan, ‘Modern Times’
This is history repeating itself – in Dylan's specific echoes of Slim Harpo and Memphis Minnie, and in his refusal to bend even in the harshest winds. "Heart burnin', still yearnin'," he sings in "Ain't Talkin'," the album's last song, a proud walk through a scorched Earth that Woody Guthrie would have recognized in an instant.
Michael Jackson, ‘Bad’
The feverishly anticipated follow-up to Thriller added more hits to Jackson's collection: "Bad," "The Way You Make Me Feel" and "Man in the Mirror." He also began venting some of his darker emotions in the violent fantasies of "Smooth Criminal" and the paranoia of "Dirty Diana."
Simon and Garfunkel, ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’
The duo's third album yielded uptempo hits like "The 59th Street Bridge Song" and the fine English-major folk of "For Emily" and "The Dangling Conversation."
Nine Inch Nails, ‘The Downward Spiral’
Holing up in the one-time home of Manson-family victim Sharon Tate, Trent Reznor made an overpowering meditation on NIN's central theme: control.
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