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
AC/DC, ‘Highway to Hell’
Bon Scott was a bourbon-swilling force of nature, and by AC/DC's fourth LP, he and guitarist Angus Young had become a one-two punch with killer songs (like the bulldozing title track) to match. Scott's wicked ways caught up with him, however: He was dead six months after Highway hit shelves.
The Strokes, ‘Is This It’
The debut from these mod ragamuffins was a blast of guitar-combo racket that made New York's shadows sound vicious and exciting again. Is This It mixed Velvet Underground grime and skinny-tie New Wave jangle with Julian Casablancas' Lower East Side dispatches – sometimes acidic, always full of great melody.
Little Walter, ‘The Best Of’
This Muddy Waters sideman attacked the harmonica with the authority of the bop sax players he loved, bringing a dynamic new sound to Chicago blues. In 1952, his own "Juke" topped the R&B charts. But he had no control of his personal life; he died at 37 after being injured in a street fight.
The founding document of alternative rock, released just as Gen X was heading off to college. Though “technically limited,” according to co-producer Don Dixon, R.E.M. packed their songs with cathartic mystery. Peter Buck’s guitar chimes and Michael Stipe unspools his low-talker lyrics like they constitute a new language.
Various Artists, ‘Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968’
This 27-song collection of short, fun brutally simple Sixties garage rock, compiled by critic Lenny Kaye, was proto-punk manna in the prog-clogged Seventies.
John Mayall With Eric Clapton, ‘Blues Breakers’
Ex-Yardbird Eric Clapton's solos here inspired his "Clapton Is God" cult. The band expertly covers Robert Johnson and Freddie King, and blows up Ray Charles' "What'd I Say" with a long drum solo that predicts Cream.
Lou Reed, ‘Transformer’
David Bowie counted the former Velvet Underground leader as a major inspiration – and paid Reed back by producing his biggest album. Transformer had glam flash courtesy of guitarist Mick Ronson, and "Walk on the Wild Side" brought drag queens and hustlers into the Top 20.
Green Day, ‘Dookie’
The album that jump-started the Nineties punk-pop revival. Singer-guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong boiled suburban boredom into airtight, three-minute shots like "Welcome to Paradise," "Basket Case" and the infectious smash "Longview" – which Armstrong described as "cheap self-therapy from watching too much TV."
The Flying Burrito Brothers, ‘The Gilded Palace of Sin’
A hugely influential country-rock statement – concocted by ex-Byrds Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman – of L.A. hillbilly anthems, God-fearing hippie soul and achingly beautiful two-part harmonies.
The Stooges, ‘Fun House’
With garage-savvy ex-Kingsmen keyboardist Don Gallucci producing their second album, the Stooges' relentless "troglodyte groove" was allowed to run psychotically rampant. "I stick it deep inside," Iggy Pop growls on "Loose." And the punk torpedoes like "T.V. Eye" make good on that promise.
Elvis Presley, ‘From Elvis in Memphis’
RCA Victor, 1969
"I had to leave town for a little while," Presley sings in the first track. This record announced he was back. With a crack crew of Memphis musicians, Presley masterfully tackles country, gospel, soul, pop and – on "In the Ghetto" – message songs.
Quicksilver Messenger Service, ‘Happy Trails’
The definitive live recording of the late-Sixties ballroom experience: This San Francisco acid-blues band's second album captures its twin guitarists in bright flight, and composed intricacies like the studio epic "Calvary" prove that psychedelia was about more than just tripping out.
Buffalo Springfield, ‘Buffalo Springfield Again’
Their second record has masterful L.A. folk rock from Stephen Stills, pioneering country rock from Richie Furay and two Neil Young gems: the raw "Mr. Soul" and the suitelike "Broken Arrow."
Peter Gabriel, ‘So’
Gabriel got funky on the 1982 single "Shock the Monkey." It took him four years to follow up, but So delivered with the visceral "Sledgehammer," the upbeat "Big Time," the gothic love ballad "In Your Eyes" and the inspirational "Don't Give Up," a duet with Brit art thrush Kate Bush.
Sly and the Family Stone, ‘Fresh’
As the Seventies unfurled, Stone became progressively dissolute. But he had one more ace up his sleeve: the intoxicating "If You Want Me to Stay," surrounded here by idiosyncratic gestures like a ragged take on Doris Day's "Que Sera, Sera."
The Stooges, ‘The Stooges’
Fueled by "a little marijuana and a lotta alienation," Michigan's Stooges savagely gave the lie to hippie idealism. Ex-Velvet Underground member John Cale produced a primitive debut wherein Iggy Stooge (né James Osterberg) snarled seminal punk classics such as "I Wanna Be Your Dog," "No Fun" and "1969."
Madonna, ‘The Immaculate Collection’
Sire/Warner Bros., 1990
A perfect Madonna CD: You get timeless pop such as "Holiday," provocations like "Papa Don't Preach," dance classics like "Into the Groove" and a then-new Lenny Kravitz-produced sex jam, "Justify My Love," which samples Public Enemy.
Willie Nelson, ‘Red Headed Stranger’
This trailblazing concept album became one of Nelson's biggest hits – a lyrically ambitious, musically stripped-down, riveting and heartfelt tale of murder and infidelity.
Fleetwood Mac, ‘Fleetwood Mac’
Mick Fleetwood, John McVie and his missis Christine's first album with California couple Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks generated big radio songs such as "Say You Love Me" and "Rhiannon" and patterned the rich harmonies and sheer melodies they'd perfect on Rumours.
Bob Marley and the Wailers, ‘Natty Dread’
The first Wailers album to give Marley top billing was multifaceted rebel music – from the call-to-arms opening, "Lively Up Yourself" (about dancing or revolution or both), to the gospel-flavored "No Woman, No Cry," an anthem of struggle and hope.
The Rolling Stones, ‘The Rolling Stones, Now!’
A charming exuberance pervades the Stones' third U.S. release, with its hot-rod takes on Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters. And their "Heart of Stone" introduces a crucial Stones element into the mix: menace.
Abba, ‘The Definitive Collection’
These Swedish pop stars became the world's biggest group in the Seventies. Global hits like the double-divorce drama "Knowing Me, Knowing You" and the war-torn "Fernando" undercut sparkly melodies with Nordic despair.
Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, ‘The Anthology 1961-1977’
Mayfield taught sociocultural awareness while dispensing fine ballads ("Gypsy Woman"), inspirational anthems ("People Get Ready," "Move On Up") and edgy street narratives ("Superfly").
Funkadelic, ‘One Nation Under a Groove’
Warner Bros., 1978
Funkadelic's first million-seller perfectly distills George Clinton's gospel of mind-altering groove music – from the monster title track to the cosmic make-out soul of "Into You" and the scatological philosophizing of "The Doo Doo Chasers."
After Toys in the Attic proved that Aerosmith were more than a Stones caricature, the band flexed its muscles on the boastfully (and aptly) named Rocks, a buffalo stampede of rave-ups and boogies. In an era of arena bombast, songs like "Back in the Saddle" and "Last Child" kept it low to the ground and swinging.
The Carpenters, ‘Close to You’
With their lush music and thoroughly wholesome image, Richard and Karen Carpenter epitomized the early-Seventies mainstream. Years later, as soft rock became a hipster touchstone, the chaste elegance of ballads like "Close to You" and "We've Only Just Begun" influenced many cooler, scruffier indie bands.
Bob Dylan, ‘Desire’
In typical Dylan style, the follow-up to Blood on the Tracks was mostly bashed out in one all-night New York session, fueled by tequila. "Sara," his account of his crumbling marriage, and the politically charged "Hurricane" highlight the last great album he'd make for many years
Todd Rundgren, ‘Something/Anything?’
On this tour-de-force double album, Rundgren demonstrates his command of the studio, unfurling his falsetto over a kaleidoscope of rock genres – including the white pop-soul of "Hello It's Me."
Rod Stewart, ‘Every Picture Tells a Story’
Stewart's best disc is loose and warm, rocking hard with mostly acoustic instruments. "Mandolin Wind" is the moving ballad; the title tune is a boozy romp; "Maggie May" went Number One.
The Byrds, ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’
The horse on the cover (reportedly) replaced David Crosby, who'd just been fired. But despite the internal drama, the Byrds made a warm, gentle comedown album for Sixties children waking up to the morning after the Summer of Love.
The Who, ‘Live at Leeds’
Faced with the task of following up Tommy [see No. 96], the Who just cranked up their amps and blasted. There's no finesse, just the pure power of a band able to play as loud as it wants. When the Who blew up Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" to Godzilla-like proportions, they invented Seventies arena rock.
Bob Marley and the Wailers’ ‘Exodus’
As the title suggests, this album wasn't recorded in Jamaica; after Marley took a bullet in a 1976 assassination attempt, he relocated the Wailers to London. But tracks such as "Jamming" and "Three Little Birds" are still suffused with the deep essence of reggae and life at home.
Elvis Costello, ‘My Aim Is True’
Costello obsessively listened to The Clash while recording his debut. And though the songs are more pub rock than punk, they're full of punk's verbal bite; the murder mystery "Watching the Detectives" and the poisoned-valentine ballad "Alison" established Costello as one of the sharpest and nastiest lyricists of his generation.
Metallica, ‘Master of Puppets’
Metallica's third album has a lyrical theme: manipulation. "Drugs controlling you," singer-guitarist James Hetfield said. It also has a sonic theme: really loud guitars, played at warhead speed. When the band slows down on "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)," it just emphasizes the unrelenting nature of the rest of the songs.
Elvis Costello and the Attractions, ‘Imperial Bedroom’
Costello wanted his music to be as complex as his lyrics (which increasingly documented marital tension). So for his seventh album he and Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick experimented with an adult sonic palette (accordions, Mellotron, horns) that highlighted grown-up stress and sorrow.
Marvin Gaye, ‘Let’s Get It On’
On this album, Gaye meditated on the gap between sex and love and how to reconcile them – an adult version of the Motown tunes he had built his career on. It’s some of the most gorgeous music he ever made, resplendent with sweet strings and his clear-throated crooning.
Linda Ronstadt, ‘The Very Best of Linda Ronstadt’
Warner Bros., 1982
"I didn't want to do a double album," Prince said, "but I just kept on writing. Of course, I'm not one for editing." The second half of 1999 is exceptional sex-obsessed dance music; the first half is the best fusion of rock and funk anyone had achieved to that date, and it lays out the blueprint for Prince's next decade.
Radiohead, ‘OK Computer’
OK is where Radiohead began pulling at their sound like taffy, not worrying if it was still "rock." The result is a slow, haunting album with unforgettable tracks such as "Karma Police" and "Paranoid Android." Guitarist Jonny Greenwood arranged white-noise strings, and Thom Yorke made alienation feel alluring.
Otis Redding, ‘The Dock of the Bay’
Redding recorded his Monterey Pop-inspired "soul-folk" experiment "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay" four days before he died in a plane crash. The posthumous album guitarist Steve Cropper compiled out of unreleased sessions is essential soul.
T. Rex, ‘Electric Warrior’
Marc Bolan cast a spell over all of England with this album, giving his Tolkienesque hippie music a glammed-out update. This was rock that thrusted, quivered and recklessly employed metaphors equating cars with sex ("You got a hubcap diamond star halo").
A double live LP, cut largely in Detroit (plus studio overdubs), Alive! was Kiss' breakthrough, with hot versions of "Strutter" and "Rock and Roll All Nite." "I really enjoy myself onstage: prancing around, shaking my ass," said singer Paul Stanley. "I am entertaining myself up there."
Elton John, ‘Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy’
This self-mythologizing spectacle about John and lyricist Bernie Taupin features "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" – from the time Taupin talked John out of suicide.
Joy Division, ‘Closer’
This is one of the most chilling albums ever made, with droning guitars, icy bass lines and stentorian vocals. And that's not even considering the lyrics, about singer Ian Curtis' epilepsy and failing marriage. When Curtis hanged himself at age 23 on May 18th, 1980, Closer officially became the stuff of rock legend.
The Beastie Boys, ‘Paul’s Boutique’
For their second album, the Beasties hired the Dust Brothers, a production team that provided some of the best samples ever on wax – from the Ramones to the Funky 4+1. The title is a goof on Abbey Road, which was Paul McCartney's boutique; like that LP, it stitches together song fragments in a way rarely seen before or since.
The Pretenders, ‘Pretenders’
After years of writing record reviews and hanging with the Sex Pistols, Chrissie Hynde put together a band as tough as she was. Pretenders is filled with no-nonsense rock like "Brass in Pocket," a meditation on ambition and seduction that stands as one of New Wave's greatest radio moments.
Howlin’ Wolf, ‘Moanin’ in the Moonlight’
Wolf's sound – a fierce growl mixed with explosive playing by guitar geniuses Willie Johnson and Hubert Sumlin – was huge and eerie, and this compilation taught the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and the rest of England the ways of the blues.
A Tribe Called Quest, ‘The Low End Theory’
Many connected the dots between hip-hop and jazz, but this LP drew the whole picture. As legendary stand-up bassist Ron Carter gets dope, Tribe discourse on everything from music biz to sexual politics – and the groove keeps getting deeper.
The B-52’s, ‘The B-52’s’
Warner Bros., 1979
The B-52's sounds like high school friends cramming their in-jokes, wacky sounds and private nicknames into a New Wave LP. Nobody could resist the campy, arty funk. And with the toy instruments and bouffant hair, the B-52's' thrift-store image was as colorful as their music – which, given "Rock Lobster," was pretty colorful.
Arcade Fire, ‘Funeral’
Love, loss, forced coming-of-age and fragile hope: The debut from this seven-member band touched on these themes as it defined indie music of the 2000s. It's surging orchestral rock that actually rocked – and found solace, and purpose, in communal celebration.