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
At a time when formulaic albums by Master P and Puff Daddy topped the charts, OutKast unleashed an explosive hip-hop that deployed live musicians, social commentary and a heavy dose of deep funk. Hits like “Rosa Parks” put the duo’s hometown “Hotlanta” on the rap map. Listen here.
B.B. King, ‘Live in Cook County Jail’
King was enjoying a career renaissance when he played this Chicago jail in 1970. He won over the hostile prisoners with definitive versions of his blues standards and his crossover hit “The Thrill Is Gone.” Listen here.
The Stone Roses, ‘The Stone Roses’
For a few glorious moments, the Stone Roses looked like they might lead another British Invasion. Instead, they fell apart – but first they made this incredible album, highlighted by the ecstatic eight-minute-long “I Am the Resurrection.” It single-handedly launched Nineties Brit pop. Listen here.
The White Stripes, ‘White Blood Cells’
Sympathy for the Record Industry, 2001
The third album by Jack and Meg White was the right dynamite for a mainstream breakthrough. Jack’s Delta-roadhouse fantasies, Detroit-garage-rock razzle and busted-love lyricism, as well as Meg’s toy-thunder drumming all peaked at once. Listen here.
Boz Scaggs, ‘Boz Scaggs’
The stone-solid grooves on this underrated gem come courtesy of the Muscle Shoals rhythm section; the soulful guitar comes courtesy of Scaggs and guest Duane Allman. Together, they made “Loan Me a Dime” an FM-radio classic – more than 10 minutes of knockout blues pleading and wailing. Listen here.
Bonnie Raitt, ‘Give It Up’
Warner Bros., 1972
California darling Raitt headed to Woodstock to cut her second LP – only to face near-monsoon weather. “My house had sand and salamanders,” Raitt said. She took refuge in the studio and churned out gorgeous folksy blues, including a cover of Jackson Browne‘s “Under the Falling Sky.” Listen here.
MGMT, ‘Oracular Spectacular’
Two hipster geeks get some rad vintage keyboards and compose a suite of synthesized heartache. You don’t have to figure out a word of “Kids” to feel the poignant kick of that massive keyboard hook. Listen here.
Wilco, ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’
Wilco‘s great leap forward was a mix of rock tradition, electronics, oddball rhythms and experimental gestures. Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics pitted hope against doubt, with all bets off. Listen here.
Annie Lennox looked like a gender-bending cybor, but she sang with soul; producer Dave Stewart hid behind his beard and masterminded the sound. Together they made divine synth pop, especially “Who’s That Girl?,” a tale of kinked-up sexual obsession, and their massive hit “Here Comes the Rain Again.” Listen here.
Albert King, ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’
King’s first album for the Stax label combines his hard, unflashy guitar playing with the sleek sound of the label’s house band, Booker T. and the MG’s. Hits such as “Crosscut Saw” and “Laundromat Blues” earned King a new rock & roll audience. Listen here.
ZZ Top, ‘Tres Hombres’
A decade before the Texas blues trio became MTV stars, ZZ Top got their first taste of national fame with this disc, which features one of their biggest hits, the John Lee Hooker-style boogie “La Grange,” as well as the boozy rocker “Jesus Just Left Chicago” and the concert anthem “Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers.” Listen here.
By their fifth album, Kiss were the most popular band in America, with sold-out stadium tours and eventually their own pinball machine, makeup line and a TV movie. Built around the proto power ballad “Beth,” this is a ridiculously over-the-top party-rock album that just gets better with age. Listen here.
Hüsker Dü, ‘New Day Rising’
These three Minneapolis dudes played savagely emotional hardcore punk that became a big influence on Nirvana, among others. The Hüskers created a rorar like garbage trucks trying to sing Beach Boys songs, especially on the anthems “Celebrated Summer” and “Perfect Example.” Listen here.
Cyndi Lauper ,’She’s So Unusual’
Lauper‘s first band had broken up and she was singing in a Japanese restaurant. Then this solo debut album of razor-sharp dance pop became the first by a female performer to score four Top Five hits, including “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and “Time After Time.” Listen here.
Earth, Wind and Fire, ‘That’s the Way of the World’
Before he got into African thumb pianos and otherworldly philosophizing, EWF founder Maurice White was a session drummer at Chess Studios. EWF’s sixth album is make-out music of the gods. Listen here.
Pearl Jam, ‘Vitalogy’
Their previous album, Vs., made Pearl Jam the most successful band in the world. They celebrated by suing Ticketmaster and making Vitalogy, where their mastery of rock’s past and future became complete. Soulful ballads like “Nothingman” are matched by hardcore-influenced rockers such as “Spin the Black Circle.” Listen here.
Mott the Hoople, ‘All the Young Dudes’
Mott were a hard-rock band with a Dylan fixation until David Bowie got ahold of them. He penned the androgyne title track and had them cover Lou Reed‘s “Sweet Jane.” Mott would sound more soulful but never more sexy or glittery. Listen here.
Gang of Four, ‘Entertainment!’
Warner Bros., 1979
Formed in 1977, Gang of Four combined Marxist politics with punk rock. They played staccato guitar-driven funk, and the stiff, jerky aggression of songs such as “Damaged Goods” and “I Found That Essence Rare” invented a new style that influenced bands from the Minutemen to LCD Soundsystem. Listen here.
Steve Earle, ‘Guitar Town’
“I got a two-pack habit and a motel tan,” Earle sings on the title track. By the time he released his debut at 31, he had done two stints in Nashville as a songwriter and he wanted something else. Guitar Town is the rocker’s version of country, packed with songs about hard living in the Reagan Eighties. Listen here.
D’Angelo recorded his second album at Electric Lady, the Manhattan studio built by Jimi Hendrix. There he studied bootleg videos of Sixties and Seventies soul singers and cooked up an album heavy on bass and drenched in a post-coital haze. The single “Untitled (How Does It Feel?)” sounds like a great lost Prince song. Listen here.
Raekwon, ‘Only Built 4 Cuban Linx
The best Wu-Tang solo joint is a study in understated cool and densely woven verses. Over RZA’s hypnotically stark beats, Raekwon crafts breathtaking drug-rap narratives; it’s a rap album that rivals the mob movies hip-hop celebrates. Listen here.
Funkadelic, ‘Maggot Brain’
“Play like your mama just died,” George Clinton told guitarist Eddie Hazel. The result was “Maggot Brain,” 10 minutes of Hendrix-style guitar anguish. This is the heaviest rock album the P-Funk ever created, but it also made room for the acoustic-guitar funk of “Can You Get to That.” Listen here.
Loretta Lynn, ‘All Time Greatest Hits’
MCA Nashville, 2002
Anyone who thinks a woman singing country music is cute should listen to “Fist City,” where Lynn threatens to beat down a woman if she doesn’t lay off her man. Seventies greats like “Rated ‘X'” and “The Pill” brought feminism to the honky-tonks. Listen here.
Merle Haggard, ‘Down Every Road’
Haggard’s tough country sound was born in Bakersfield, California, a.k.a. Nashville West. His songs are full of drifters, fugitives and rogues, and this four-disc set – culled from his seminal recordings for Capitol as well as MCA and Epic – is the ultimate collection from one of country’s finest singers. Listen here.
The Notorious B.I.G., ‘Life After Death’
Bad Boy, 1997
Released less than a month after Biggie‘s murder, the prophetic Life After Death is two CDs of humor and bravado, no filler at all, as he tops himself in “Mo Money Mo Problems” and”#!*@ You Tonight.” Listen here.
Elvis Costello and the Attractions, ‘Armed Forces’
Costello‘s third album is all tightly wound paranoia. The concept is personal politics; the original title was Emotional Fascism, and one song is called “Two Little Hitlers.” The keyboard-driven sound of “Accidents Will Happen” helped define New Wave. Listen here.
Manu Chao, ‘Próxima Estación: Esperanza’
Globally, Chao had long been a Marley-size figure. But this gem gave Americans a taste of his wild-ass greatness. Chao rocks an acoustic guitar over horns and beatboxes while rambling multilingually about crucial topics from politics to pot.
The Smiths, ‘The Smiths’
"I recognize that mystical air/It means I'd like to seize your underwear," Morrissey moans, and rock music was never the same. The Smiths' debut is a showcase for Morrissey's morose wit and Johnny Marr's guitar chime, trudging through England's cheerless marshes in "Still Ill" and "This Charming Man."
George Michael, ‘Faith’
When Michael left Wham!, he signified his new maturity by not shaving. Thankfully, his music was still tasty pop candy – six of these songs hit the Top Five on the singles charts. "I Want Your Sex" is one of the decade's finest Prince imitations, and the best ballad is the spooky, soulful "Father Figure."
Richard and Linda Thompson, ‘I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight’
Richard played guitar like a Sufi-mystic Neil Young; wife Linda had the voice of a Celtic Emmylou Harris. This is their great statement of folk-rock dread.
LL Cool J, ‘Radio’
Def Jam, 1985
L.L. Cool J was only 16 when he released his first single, "I Need a Beat." A year later, he had the first hit on the fledgling Def Jam label. The sound he and Rick Rubin found on "I Can't Live Without My Radio" and "Rock the Bells" was harder and leaner than hip-hop had ever been.
The Fugees, ‘The Score’
Led by Wyclef Jean, the Fugees created eclectic, politically aware R&B hip-hop, but the breakout was a cover of Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly With His Song," highlighting Lauryn Hill's amazing pipes.
The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, ‘The Paul Butterfield Blues Band’
Where American white kids got the notion they could play the blues. This band had two kiler guitarists: Michael Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop.
Bruce Springsteen, ‘Tunnel of Love’
After the big-scale Born in the U.S.A., this came as a shock – an album of stark, intimate, mostly acoustic confessionals. The newly wed superstar gets personal on adult love songs such as "One Step Up" and "Walk Like a Man." The marriage didn't last – but the music does.
Coldplay, ‘A Rush of Blood to the Head’
Coldplay churn out bighearted British guitar rock on their second album – what Chris Martin aptly called "emotion that can make you feel sad while you're moving your legs."
The Magnetic Fields, ’69 Love Songs’
The title says it all: three discs of brilliantly turned tunes about pop's signature emotion. Stephin Merritt lived out a Tin Pan Alley fantasy as he spooled his droll bass over synth pop, bubblegum, Afropop, show tunes, country and more. It's irony on steroids, but try to get through "Papa Was a Rodeo" without shedding a tear.
Def Leppard, ‘Hysteria’
Def Leppard had a run of bad luck in the Eighties, especially when drummer Rick Allen lost his arm in a car crash on New Year's Eve 1984. But the lads admirably stuck by their old mate, who learned to play drums using his feet. The band was vindicated when Hysteria and "Pour Some Sugar on Me" became a smash.
Echo and the Bunnymen, ‘Heaven Up Here’
The Bunnymen refresh psychedelia for the New Wave era with an arena of foggy guitars and doomy drums, while Ian McCulloch updates the aura of Jim Morrison. Melody meets melodrama on the title track and on "A Promise," where McCulloch sing-sobs a story of love gone wrong.
R.E.M. were trying something new with each album in the Eighties, but this straight-ahead rock move was the one that made them mainstream stars. "The One I Love" was a hit, but the fan favorite is the manic "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)."
Public Image Ltd., ‘Metal Box’
After the Sex Pistols imploded, Johnny Rotten reclaimed his real name – John Lydon – and started a bold new band. PiL played eerie art punk with dub bass and slashing guitar. Metal Box (retitled Second Edition in the U.S.) originally came as three vinyl discs in a metal film canister.
Hole, ‘Live Through This’
On Hole's breakthrough album, Courtney Love wants to be "the girl with the most cake," and she spends the whole album paying for it, in the melodic punk-rock anguish of "Miss World," "Softer, Softest" and "Doll Parts." Her husband Kurt Cobain's body was found just days before the album was released.
The Drifters, ‘Golden Hits’
By the early 1960s, the Drifters had evolved into the most suave soul group on the block. Even after Ben E. King went solo (scoring with "Stand By Me"), producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and the Drifters kept coming up with timeless odes to urban romance such as "Up on the Roof" and "Under the Boardwalk."
Elton John, ‘Tumbleweed Connection’
John has always had a jones for the myth of the American West. Along with lyricist Bernie Taupin, he fully indulges those cowboy fantasies here. "Amoreena" plays unforgettably in the opening scene of the Al Pacino film Dog Day Afternoon.
My Morning Jacket, ‘Z’
These Kentucky boys took a giant leap forward on their fourth album – giant enough to take them from a jammy Americana band to awe-inspiring purveyors of interstellar art rock. My Morning Jacket infused Z with both Eno-esque keyboards and sculpted guitars, but also Skynyrd-style riffs and bar-band grooves.
Marvin Gaye, ‘Here, My Dear’
It's one of the weirdest Motown records ever. Gaye's divorce settlement required him to make a new album and pay the royalties to his ex-wife – the sister of Motown boss Berry Gordy. So Gaye made this bitterly funny double LP of breakup songs, including "You Can Leave, But It's Going to Cost You."
Los Lobos, ‘How Will the Wolf Survive?’
Slash/Warner Bros., 1984
"We were kids with long hair and plaid shirts playing Mexican folk instruments," said Los Lobos' Louie Perez. But the band from East L.A. was a surprise success, mixing traditional Mexican sounds with blues and rockabilly for rough roots rock.
Alice Cooper, ‘Love It to Death’
Warner Bros., 1971
Onstage, Cooper was the shock-rock king who decapitated baby dolls, but his early studio albums are smart, razor-sharp attacks of Detroit rock. On Love It to Death, producer Bob Ezrin joins him for the twisted kicks of "Hallowed Be My Name" and the teen-spirit anthem "I'm Eighteen."
EPMD, ‘Strictly Business’
In the summer of '88, Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith, a.k.a. EPMD (Erick and Parrish Making Dollars), rolled out of Long Island with a new style of slow-grooving hip-hop funk. Cut in the era before artists cleared their samples, the title jam even pilfers "I Shot the Sheriff."
John Prine, ‘John Prine’
Prine was a mailman-turned-folk-singer, and his debut is unique in how it views American life with generosity, tolerance and wit. Prine sang about smoking dope ("Illegal Smile"), but his empathy for the old folks with "Hello in There" made most hippie songwriters sound smug.
Amy Winehouse, ‘Back to Black’
It's sad to think back on how fresh this record sounded at the time – funny and hip, revivalist but forward-looking. Winehouse, a tatted 23-year-old with a beehive crown, matched the spirit of her R&B heroes, cussing, cracking wise and casually breaking your heart. She triggered a new era for brilliantly weird women in pop.