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500 Greatest Albums of All Time

Rolling Stone’s definitive list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

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.

88

Johnny Cash, ‘At Folsom Prison’

Columbia, 1968

By the late Sixties, Johnny Cash was ignored by country radio and struggling for a comeback. At Folsom Prison was the gold-selling shot in the arm that revived his career. A year later, he was writing liner notes for Bob Dylan's countrified Nashville Skyline and logging four weeks at Number One with his second prison album, At San Quentin. But At Folsom Prison is essential Cash. Backed by his tough touring band, including fellow Sun Records alum Carl Perkins on guitar, Cash guffaws his way through "Cocaine Blues," "25 Minutes to Go" (a countdown to an execution) and "Folsom Prison Blues," with its line about shooting a man just to watch him die. The 2,000 inmates in attendance roar their approval.

87

Pink Floyd, ‘The Wall’

Columbia, 1979

Pink Floyd's most elaborately theatrical album was inspired by their own success: the alienating enormity of their tours after The Dark Side of the Moon [see No. 43]. As the band played arenas in 1977, bassist­lyricist Roger Waters first hit upon the wall as a metaphor for isolation and rebellion. He finished a demo of the work by July 1978; the double album then took the band a year to make. Rock's ultimate self-pity opera, The Wall is also hypnotic in its indulgence: the totalitarian thunder of "In the Flesh?," the suicidal languor of "Comfortably Numb," the Brechtian drama of "The Trial" and the anti-institutional spleen of the album's unshakable disco hit, "Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2." Rock-star hubris has never been more electrifying.

86

Bruce Springsteen, ‘Born in the U.S.A.’

Columbia, 1984

Bruce Springsteen wrote many of these songs in a fit of inspiration that also gave birth to the harrowing Nebraska [see No. 226]. "Particularly on the first side, [Born] is actually written very much like Nebraska," he said. "The characters and the stories, the style of writing – except it's just in the rock-band setting." It was a crucial difference: The E Street Band put so much punch into the ironic title song that millions misheard it as mere flag-waving instead (conservative pundit George Will wrote a rhapsodic column titled "A Yankee Doodle Springsteen"). The immortal force of the album is in Springsteen's frank mix of soaring optimism and the feeling of, as he put it, being "handcuffed to the bumper of a state trooper's Ford."

85

Aretha Franklin, ‘Lady Soul’

Atlantic, 1968

Aretha Franklin's third Atlantic album in less than two years is another classic, with "(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman," "Ain't No Way" and a slinky version of the Rascals' "Groovin'." It was released in a year of triumph and turbulence for Franklin: Although she made the cover of Time, the magazine reported details of her rocky marriage to Ted White, then her manager. But Franklin channeled that frenzy into performances of funky pride and magisterial hurt. Among the best: the grand-prayer treatment of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready," the revved-up longing of "Since You've Been Gone (Sweet Sweet Baby)" and her explosive anguish on the hit cover of Don Covay's "Chain of Fools."

84

Aretha Franklin, ‘I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You’

Atlantic, 1967

Aretha Franklin's Atlantic debut is the place where gospel collided with R&B and rock & roll to make soul music as we know it today. The Detroit­born preacher's daughter was about $80,000 in debt to her previous label, Columbia – where she had recorded a series of somewhat tame early-Sixties albums – when Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler signed her in 1966. "I took her to church," Wexler said, "sat her down at the piano, and let her be herself." She immediately cut the album's title hit, a slow fire of ferocious sexuality, while her storefront­church cover of Otis Redding's "Respect" – Franklin's first Number One pop single – became the marching song for the women's and civil rights movements.

83

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, ‘Axis: Bold as Love’

Reprise, 1968

Jimi Hendrix's first album remade rock & roll with guitar magic that no one had ever dreamed of; his second album had even more sorcery. It started with some musings on extraterrestrial life, then got really far-out: jazzy drumming, funky balladry, liquid guitar solos, dragon­fly heavy metal and the immortal stoner's maxim from "If 6 Was 9": "I'm the one who's gonna have to die when it's time for me to die, so let me live my life the way I want to." All over the album, Hendrix was inventing new ways to make the electric guitar roar, sing, talk, shriek, flutter and fly. And with the delicate "Little Wing," he delivered one of rock's most cryptic and bewitching love songs.

82

Neil Young, ‘Harvest’

Reprise, 1972

Harvest yielded Neil Young's only Number One hit, "Heart of Gold," and helped set the stage for the Seventies soft-rock explosion – both James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt sing on the album. Along with Young, they were in Nashville to appear on Johnny Cash's ABC-TV variety show the first weekend that Harvest was being cut with an odd group of accomplished session musicians that included bassist Tim Drummond, who had played with James Brown (Young's bandmates Crosby, Stills and Nash also appeared on the album). The sound, on tracks like "Old Man" and "The Needle and the Damage Done," was Americana (steel guitar, slide guitar, banjo) stripped down and rebuilt with every jagged edge exposed.

81

The Clash, ‘The Clash’

Epic, 1979

"I haven't got any illusions about anything," Joe Strummer said. "Having said that, I still want to try to change things." That youthful ambition bursts through the Clash's debut, a machine-gun blast of songs about unemployment ("Career Opportunities"), race ("White Riot"), the Clash themselves ("Clash City Rockers") and the sick English music industry ("[White Man] In Hammersmith Palais"). Most of the guitar was played by Mick Jones, because Strummer considered studio technique insufficiently punk. The American release was delayed two years and replaced some of the U.K. tracks with recent singles, including "Complete Control" – a complaint about exactly that sort of record-company shenanigans.

80

John Lennon, ‘Imagine’

Apple, 1971

After the primal-scream therapy of Plastic Ono Band, John Lennon softened up and opened up on his second solo album. There is still the stinging "Gimme Some Truth" and Lennon's evisceration of Paul McCartney, "How Do You Sleep?" – both featuring George Harrison on guitar. But there is also the aching soul of "Jealous Guy" and the irresistible vulnerability of "Oh Yoko!" Imagine is self-consciously luminescent, pointedly embraceable, the sound of cynicism melting. Lennon said of the title track, "Anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti­conventional, anti-capitalistic, but because it is sugarcoated it is accepted… Now I understand what you have to do. Put your political message across with a little honey."

79

Led Zeppelin, ‘Led Zeppelin II’

Atlantic, 1969

This album – recorded on the fly while the band was touring – opens with one of the most exhilarating guitar riffs in rock & roll: Jimmy Page's searing stutter in "Whole Lotta Love." As Page told Rolling Stone, "On the second LP, you can hear the real group identity coming together," by which he meant the unified might of his own white-blues devilry, John Bonham's hands-of-God drumming, Robert Plant's misty-mountain howl and John Paul Jones' firm bass and keyboard colors. Other great reasons to bang your head: "The Lemon Song," "Heart­breaker" and "Ramble On," where Plant meets a girl in the darkest depths of Mordor and single­handedly engenders a sales spike for J.R.R. Tolkien books.

78

Otis Redding, ‘Otis Blue’

Volt, 1965

Otis Redding's third album includes covers of three songs by Sam Cooke, Redding's idol, who had died the previous December. Their styles were different: Cooke, smooth and sure; Redding, raw and pleading. But Redding's versions of "Shake" and "A Change Is Gonna Come" show how Cooke's sound and message helped shape Redding's Southern soul, heard here in his originals "Respect" and "I've Been Loving You Too Long" and in a cover of the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," which was itself inspired by the Stax/Volt sound. "I use a lot of words different than the Stones' version," Redding noted. "That's because I made them up." Two years later, his life would also be tragically cut short.

77

AC/DC, ‘Back in Black’

Atlantic, 1980

In the middle of album rehearsals, singer Bon Scott went on a drinking spree; he choked on his own vomit and was found dead in the back seat of a car. After two days of mourning, guitarist Malcolm Young thought, "Well, fuck this, I'm not gonna sit around mopin' all fuckin' year." He called his brother, guitarist Angus Young, and they went back to work with replacement vocalist Brian Johnson and savvy producer Mutt Lange. The resulting album has the relentless logic of a sledgehammer. Back in Black might be the purest distillation of hard rock ever: The title track, "Hells Bells" and the primo dance-metal banger "You Shook Me All Night Long" have all become enduring anthems of strutting blues-based guitar heat

76

Prince and the Revolution, ‘Purple Rain’

Warner Bros., 1984

The blockbuster soundtrack to Prince's semiautobiographical movie was raunchy enough to inspire the formation of the censorship watchdog group Parents' Music Resource Center. It also show­cased Prince's abilities as a guitarist, especially on "Let's Go Crazy." But at heart, Purple Rain is defined by its brilliant idiosyncrasies. Its breakthrough hit, "When Doves Cry," has no bass track (looking for a different sound, Prince removed it). According to keyboardist Dr. Fink, the title track was inspired by Bob Seger – when Prince was touring behind 1999 [see No. 163], Seger was playing many of the same markets. Prince didn't understand his appeal but decided to try a ballad in the Seger mode.

75

James Brown, ‘Star Time’

Polydor, 1991

So great is James Brown's impact that even the four-CD Star Time isn't quite comprehensive – between 1956 and 1988, Brown placed an astounding 100 singles on the R&B Top 40 charts. But every phase of his career is well represented here: the pleading, straight-up soul of "Please, Please, Please"; his instantaneous reinvention of R&B with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," where the rhythm takes over and melody is subsumed within the groove; his spokesmanship for the civil rights movement in "Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud (Pt. 1)"; his founding document of Seventies funk, "Get Up (I Feel Like Sex Being a) Sex Machine"; and his blueprint for hip-hop in "Funky Drummer." At 71 tracks, it never gets close to running out of soul power.

74

Neil Young, ‘After the Gold Rush’

Reprise, 1970

For his third album, Neil Young fired Crazy Horse (the first of many times he would do so), picked up an acoustic guitar and headed to his basement. He installed recording equipment in the cellar of his Topanga Canyon home in Los Angeles, leaving room for only three or four people. There, Young made an album of heartbreaking ballads such as "Tell Me Why" and "Don't Let It Bring You Down." The music is gentle, but never smooth (check the bracing "Southern Man"). Nils Lofgren, then a 17-year-old hotshot guitarist, squeezed into the sessions, but Young assigned him to the piano, an instrument he had never played in his life; it was a characteristically contrary move that worked out beautifully.

73

Led Zeppelin, ‘Physical Graffiti’

Swan Song, 1975

"Let's put it this way: I had a sitar before George Harrison," said Jimmy Page, explaining his longtime love for Indian music. Zep's frontman shared that affinity: In 1972, Robert Plant and Page journeyed to Bombay to make experimental recordings with Indian studio musicians and perform in an underground disco. Physical Graffiti is the ultimate in Led Zeppelin's attempts to fuse East and West, exploring the Arabic and Indian sonorities of "Kashmir" and "In the Light." It's Zeppelin's most eclectic album, featuring down-and-dirty blues ("Black Country Woman," "Boogie With Stu"), pop balladry ("Down by the Seaside") and the 11-minute "In My Time of Dying." An excessive album from the group that all but invented excess.

72

Curtis Mayfield, ‘Superfly’

Curtom, 1972

Isaac Hayes' Shaft came first – but that rec­ord had one great single and a lot of instrumental filler. It was Curtis Mayfield who made a blaxploitation-soundtrack album that packed more drama than the movie it accompanied. Musically, Superfly is astonishing, marrying lush string parts to deep bass grooves, with lots of wah-wah guitar. On top, Mayfield sings in his worldly-wise falsetto, narrating the bleak ghetto tales of "Pusherman" and "Freddie's Dead," telling hard truths about the drug trade and black life in the 1970s; it was