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.
"I came from a family where my people didn't like rhythm & blues," Little Richard told Rolling Stone in 1970. "Bing Crosby, 'Pennies From Heaven,' Ella Fitzgerald was all I heard. And I knew there was something that could be louder than that, but didn't know where to find it. And I found it was me." Richard's raucous 1957 debut album collected singles such as "Rip It Up" and "Long Tall Sally," in which his rollicking boogie-woogie piano and falsetto scream ignited the unfettered possibilities of rock & roll. "Tutti Frutti" still contains what has to be considered the most inspired rock lyric ever recorded: "A wop bop alu bop, a wop bam boom!"
Rock's greatest live double LP is an unbeatable testimony to the Allman Brothers' improvisational skills, as well as evidence of how they connected with audiences to make jamming feel communal. "The audience would kind of play along with us," singerorganist Gregg Allman said of the March 1971 shows documented here. "They were right on top of every single vibration coming from the stage." The dazzling guitar team of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts was at its peak, seamlessly fusing blues and jazz in "Whipping Post" and "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed." But their telepathy was interrupted: Just three months after the album's release, Duane died in a motorcycle accident.
Def Jam, 1988
Loud, obnoxious, funky, avant-garde, political, hilarious – Public Enemy's brilliant second album is all of these things, all at once. Chuck D booms intricate rhymes with a delivery inspired by sportscaster Marv Albert; sidekick Flavor Flav raps comic relief; and production team the Bomb Squad builds mesmerizing, multilayered jams, pierced with shrieking sirens. The title and roiling force of "Bring the Noise" is truth in advertising. "If they're callin' my music 'noise,'" said Chuck D, "if they're saying that I'm really getting out of character being a black person in America, then fine – I'm bringin' more noise."
Two important things happened to John Coltrane in 1957: The saxophonist left Miles Davis' employ to join Thelonious Monk's band and hit new heights in extended, ecstatic soloing. Coltrane also kicked heroin addiction, a vital step in a spiritual awakening that climaxed with this legendary album-long hymn of praise – transcendent music perfect for the high point of the civil rights movement. The indelible four-note theme of the first piece, "Acknowledgment," is the humble foundation of the suite. But Coltrane's majestic, often violent blowing (famously described as "sheets of sound") is never self-aggrandizing. His playing soars with nothing but gratitude and joy. You can't help but go with him.
Bob Marley said, "Reggae music is too simple for [American musicians]. You must be inside of it, know what's happening, and why you want to play this music. You don't just run and go play this music because you think you can make a million off it." Ironically, this set of the late reggae idol's greatest hits has sold in the millions worldwide. In a single disc, it captures everything that made him an international icon: his nuanced songcraft, his political message (and savvy), and – of course – the universal soul he brought to Jamaican rhythm and Rastafarian spirituality in the gunfighter ballad "I Shot the Sheriff," the comforting swing of "No Woman, No Cry" and the holy promise of "Redemption Song."
The Band were four-fifths Canadian – drummer Levon Helm was from Arkansas – but their second album is all American. Guitarist Robbie Robertson's songs vividly evoke the country's pioneer age ("Across the Great Divide") and the Civil War ("The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"), while reflecting the fractured state of the nation in the 1960s. The Band's long life on the road resonates in the brawn of Garth Hudson's keyboards and Helm's juke-joint attack. But Robertson's stories truly live in Helm's growl, Rick Danko's high tenor and Richard Manuel's spectral croon. "Somebody once said he had a tear in his voice," Helm said of Manuel. "Richard had one of the richest-textured voices I'd ever heard."
From its first defiant line, "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine," the opening shot in a bold reinvention of Van Morrison's Sixties garage-rock classic "Gloria," Patti Smith's debut album was a declaration of committed mutiny, a statement of faith in the transfigurative powers of rock & roll. Horses made her the queen of punk before it even really existed, but Smith cared more for the poetry in rock. She sought the visions and passions that connected Keith Richards and Rimbaud – and found them, with the intuitive assistance of a killing band (pianist Richard Sohl, guitarist Lenny Kaye, bassist Ivan Kral and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty) and her friend Robert Mapplethorpe, who shot the stark, beautiful cover portrait.
"I think every album was a step toward Dark Side of the Moon," keyboardist Rick Wright said. "We were learning all the time; the techniques of the recording and our writing was getting better." As a culmination of their inner-space explorations of the early 1970s, the Floyd toured the bulk of Dark Side in Britain for months prior to recording. But in the studio, the band articulated bassist Roger Waters' reveries on the madness of everyday life with melodic precision ("Breathe," "Us and Them") and cinematic luster (Clare Torry's guest-vocal aria, "The Great Gig in the Sky"). It's one of the best-produced rock albums ever, and "Money" may be the only Top 20 hit in 7/4 time.
After blowing minds as the house band at L.A.'s Whisky-a-Go-Go, where they got fired for playing the Oedipal drama "The End," the Doors were ready to unleash their organ-driven rock on the world. "On each song we had tried every possible arrangement," drummer John Densmore said, "so we felt the whole album was tight." The Blakean pop art on their debut was beyond Top 40 attention spans. But they hit pay dirt by editing down one of their jams: "Light My Fire," written by guitarist Robbie Krieger when Jim Morrison told everybody in the band to write a song with universal imagery.
Warner Bros., 1977
"If the sessions had gone the way I wanted, it would have been unlistenable for most people," Johnny Rotten said. "If you want people to listen, you’re going to have to compromise." But few heard it that way at the time. The Pistols' only studio album sounds like a rejection of everything rock & roll had to offer. True, the music was less shocking than Rotten himself, who snarled about abortions, anarchy and hatred. But Never Mind. . . is the Sermon on the Mount of U.K. punk – and its echoes are everywhere.
"When I did that album," singer Arthur Lee said, "I thought I was going to die at that particular time, so those were my last words." Lee, who died of cancer in 2006, was still performing this album live well into the '00s. And for good reason: The third record by his biracial L.A. band is wild and funny and totally pioneering: folk rock turned into elegant Armageddon with the symphonic sweep and mariachi-brass drama of "Alone Again Or" and "You Set the Scene." In the late Nineties, Lee served time in prison. After his release, he brought extra pathos to "Live and Let Live" when he sang, "Served my time, served it well."
The Beatles recorded 10 of the 14 songs on their debut album at EMI's Abbey Road studio in just over 12 hours on February 11th, 1963. For productivity alone, it's one of the greatest first albums in rock. The Beatles had already invented a bracing new sound for a rock band – an assault of thrumming energy and impeccable vocal harmonies – and they nailed it using the covers and originals in their live repertoire: the Shirelles' "Boys" and Arthur Alexander's "Anna"; the Lennon–McCartney burners "There's a Place" and "I Saw Her Standing There." Fittingly, John Lennon finished the epochal all-day session shirtless and shredding what was left of his vocal cords on two takes of "Twist and Shout."
McKinley Morganfield – a.k.a. Muddy Waters – started out playing acoustic Delta blues in Mississippi. But when he moved to Chicago in 1943, he needed an electric guitar to be heard over the tumult of South Side clubs. The sound he developed was the foundation of Chicago blues – and rock & roll; the thick, bleeding tones of his slide work anticipated rock-guitar distortion by nearly two decades. Jimi Hendrix adapted Waters' "Rollin' Stone" for "Voodoo Chile," Bob Dylan found inspiration in it for "Like a Rolling Stone," and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards took their band's name from it. The 50 cuts on these two CDs run from guitar-and-stand-up-bass duets to full-band romps – and they only scratch the surface of Waters' legacy.
In pursuit of note-perfect Hollywood-cowboy ennui, the Eagles spent eight months in the studio polishing take after take after take. As Don Henley recalled, "We just locked ourselves in. We had a refrigerator, a ping-pong table, roller skates and a couple of cots. We would go in and stay for two or three days at a time." With guitarist Joe Walsh replacing Bernie Leadon, the band backed off from straight country rock in favor of the harder sound of "Life in the Fast Lane." The somber "New Kid in Town" ponders the fleeting nature of fame, and the title track is a monument to the rock-aristocrat decadence of the day and a feast of triple-guitar interplay. "Every band has their peak," Henley said. "That was ours."
For nearly a decade, Carole King wrote Brill Building pop with her then-husband, Gerry Goffin: hits such as Little Eva's "The Loco-Motion" (Eva Boyd was the couple's baby sitter) and the Monkees' "Pleasant Valley Sunday." Then King's friend James Taylor encouraged her to sing her own tunes. She slowed down "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" (originally a hit for the Shirelles in 1960), heightening the melancholy inside, while her warm, earnest singing brought out the sadness in "So Far Away" and "It's Too Late" and the earthy joy on "I Feel the Earth Move." On Tapestry, King remade herself as an artist and created the reigning model for the 1970s female singer-songwriter – not to mention a blockbuster pop record of enduring artistic quality.
This album documents one of the most elaborate self-mythologizing schemes in rock, as David Bowie created the glittery, messianic alter ego Ziggy Stardust ("well-hung and snow-white tan"). The glam rock Bowie made with guitarist Mick Ronson on tracks like "Hang on to Yourself" and "Suffragette City" is an irresistible blend of sexy, campy pop and blues power. The anthem "Ziggy Stardust" is one of rock's earliest, and best, power ballads. "I consider myself responsible for a whole new school of pretensions," Bowie said at the time. "They know who they are. Don't you, Elton? Just kidding. No, I'm not."
"Big Pink" was a pink house in Woodstock, New York, where the Band – Bob Dylan's '65-'66 backup band on tour – moved to be near Dylan after his motorcycle accident. While he recuperated, the Band backed him on the demos later known as The Basement Tapes [see No. 292] and made their own debut. Dylan offered to play on the album; the Band said no thanks. "We didn't want to just ride his shirttail," drummer Levon Helm said. Dylan contributed "I Shall Be Released" and co-wrote two other tunes. But it was the rustic beauty of the Band's music and the drama of their own reflections on family and obligations, on songs such as "The Weight," that made Big Pink an instant homespun classic.
"Our early songs came out of our real feelings of alienation, isolation, frustration – the feelings everybody feels between 17 and 75," said singer Joey Ramone. Clocking in at just over 28 minutes, Ramones is a complete rejection of the spangled artifice of 1970s rock. The songs are fast and anti-social, just like the band: "Beat on the Brat," "Blitzkrieg Bop," "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue." Guitarist Johnny Ramone refused to play solos – his jackhammer chords became the lingua franca of punk – and the whole thing was recorded for just over $6,000. Yet amid the buoyantly nihilist fury, Joey Ramone's leather-tender plea "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" showed that even punks need love.
The Rolling Stones' final record of the Sixties kicks off with the terrifying "Gimme Shelter," the song that came to symbolize not only the catastrophe of the Stones' free show at Altamont but the death of the decade's utopian spirit. And the entire album burns with apocalyptic cohesion: the sex-mad desperation of "Live With Me"; the murderous blues of "Midnight Rambler"; Keith Richards' lethal, biting guitar on "Monkey Man"; the epic moralism, with honky-tonk piano and massed vocal chorus, of "You Can't Always Get What You Want," which Mick Jagger wrote on acoustic guitar in his bedroom. "Somebody said that we could get the London Bach Choir," Jagger recalled years later, "and we said, 'That will be a laugh.'"
"It's very complicated to play with electricity," Bob Dylan said in the summer of 1965. "You're dealing with other people… Most people who don't like rock & roll can't relate to other people." But on Side One of this pioneering album, Dylan amplifies his cryptic, confrontational songwriting with guitar lightning and galloping drums. "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and "Maggie's Farm" are loud, caustic and funny as hell. Dylan returns to solo acoustic guitar on the four superb songs on Side Two, including the scabrous "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" and the closing ballad, "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," arguably his finest, most affectionate song of dismissal.
"The Blue album, there's hardly a dishonest note in the vocals," Joni Mitchell told Rolling Stone in 1979. "At that period of my life, I had no persona defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world, and I couldn't pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy." With song after song of regrets and sorrow, this may be the ultimate breakup album. Its whispery minimalism is also Mitchell's greatest musical achievement. Stephen Stills and James Taylor lend an occasional hand, but in "California," "Carey," "This Flight Tonight" and the devastating title track, Mitchell sounds utterly alone in her melancholy, turning the sadness into tender, universally powerful art.
On their first album, Led Zeppelin were still in the process of inventing their own sound, moving on from the heavy rave-ups of guitarist Jimmy Page's previous band, the Yardbirds. But from the beginning, Zeppelin had the astonishing fusion of Page's lyrical guitar-playing, Robert Plant's paint-peeling love-hound yowl, and John Paul Jones and John Bonham's avalanche boogie. "We were learning what got us off most and what got people off most," said Plant. Yet the template for everything Zeppelin achieved in the 1970s is here: brutal rock ("Communication Breakdown"), thundering power balladry ("Your Time Is Gonna Come"), acid-flavored folk blues ("Babe I'm Gonna Leave You"). Heavy metal still lives in its shadow.
Pete Townshend said he suffered a nervous breakdown when his planned follow-up to the rock opera Tommy, the ambitious, theatrical Lifehouse, fell apart. But he was left with an extraordinary cache of songs that the Who honed for what became their best studio album, Who's Next. "Won't Get Fooled Again," "Bargain" and "Baba O'Riley" (named in tribute to avant-garde composer Terry Riley and Townshend's spiritual guru Meher Baba) all beam with epic majesty, often spiked with synthesizers. "I like synthesizers," Townshend said, "because they bring into my hands things that aren't in my hands: the sound of the orchestra, French horns, strings… You press a switch and it plays it back at double speed."
"America's the promised land to a lot of Irish people," Bono told Rolling Stone. "I'm one in a long line of Irishmen who made the trip." On U2's fifth studio album, the band immersed itself in the mythology of the United States, while the Edge exploited the poetic echo of digital delay, drowning his trademark arpeggios in rippling tremolo. One of the most moving songs is "Running to Stand Still," a stripped-down slide-guitar ballad about heroin addiction, but for the most part this is an album that turns spiritual quests and political struggles into uplifting stadium singalongs: See hits like "Where the Streets Have No Name" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," a rock anthem with a gospel soul.
Warner Bros., 1977
On Rumours, Fleetwood Mac turned private turmoil into gleaming, melodic public art. The band's two couples – bassist John and singer-keyboard player Christine McVie, who were married; guitarist Lindsey Buckingham and vocalist Stevie Nicks, who were not – were in the midst of breakups during the album's protracted sessions. This lent a highly charged, confessional aura to songs like Buckingham's "Go Your Own Way," Nicks' "Dreams," Christine's "Don't Stop" and the group-composed anthem to betrayal, "The Chain." The Mac's catchy exposés, produced with California-sunshine polish, touched a nerve: Rumours became the gold standard of late-Seventies FM radio and the seventh-bestselling studio album of all time.
Perhaps the greatest live album ever recorded. From the breathless buildup of the spoken intro through terse, sweat-soaked early hits such as "Try Me" and "Think" into 11 minutes of the raw ballad "Lost Someone," climaxing with a frenzied nine-song medley and ending with "Night Train," Live at the Apollo is pure, uncut soul. And it almost didn't happen. James Brown defied King Records label boss Syd Nathan's opposition to a live album by arranging to record a show himself – on October 24th, 1962, the last date in a run at Harlem's historic Apollo Theater. His intuition proved correct: Live at the Apollo – the first of four albums Brown recorded there – charted for 66 weeks.
Stevie Wonder's high-flying musical experimentation and penetrating lyrical insight made Innervisions a textured, but never self-indulgent, work of soulful self-discovery. Fusing social realism with spiritual idealism, he brings expressive color and irresistible funk to his keyboards on "Too High" (a cautionary anti-drug song) and "Higher Ground" (which echoes Martin Luther King Jr.'s message of transcendence). The album's centerpiece is "Living for the City," a cinematic depiction of exploitation and injustice. He brought his most innovative music to life in the nick of time: Three days after Innervisions was released, Wonder was put into a four-day coma after the car he was traveling in collided with a logging truck.
Also known as the "primal scream" album, referring to the painful therapy that gave rise to its songs, Plastic Ono Band was John Lennon's first proper solo album and rock & roll's most self-revelatory recording. Lennon attacks and denies idols and icons, including his own former band ("I don't believe in Beatles," he sings in "God"), to hit a pure, raw core of confession that, in its echo-drenched, garage-rock crudity, is years ahead of punk. He deals with childhood loss in "Mother" and skirts blasphemy in "Working Class Hero": "You're still fucking peasants as far as I can see." But consigning Sixties dreams to the rubbish bin, there's also room for a fragile sense of possibility (see "Hold On"). Plastic Ono Band is the sound of Year Zero.