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
Bruce Springsteen, ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’
This was the sound of Springsteen's hard-won realism breaking through, chronicling working-class dreams and despair on cuts like "The Promised Land" and "Racing in the Street," his greatest-ever car song.
This debut unveiled Carlos Santana's singular mix of Latin rhythms, rock guitar and lyrical blues. The 22-year-old's guitar work was fueled by psychedelics. "[Drugs] made me aware of splendor and rapture," he said. Santana did the same thing for fans.
Led Zeppelin, ‘Houses of the Holy’
On Album Five, Zeppelin got into a groove. "D'yer Mak'er" is their version of reggae, and "The Crunge" is a tribute to James Brown. The band also indulged its cosmic side with "The Rain Song" (featuring one of Robert Plant's most amazing vocals) and the Viking death chant "No Quarter."
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, ‘Deja Vu’
Neil Young transformed the folk-rock CSN into a powerhouse – offering pop idealism (Graham Nash's "Teach Your Children"), militant blues (David Crosby's "Almost Cut My Hair") and vocal-choir gallop (Stephen Stills' "Carry On"). The achingly plaintive "Helpless" is prime early Young.
Jefferson Airplane, ‘Surrealistic Pillow’
The Airplane's heady debut is a hallucinatory distillation of folk-blues vocals, garage-rock guitar and crisp pop songwriting. Grace Slick's vocal showcases, "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love," were Summer of Love smash hits, and Marty Balin's spectral "Today" is still the greatest ballad of San Francisco's glory days.
Steely Dan, ‘Aja’
Steely Dan's meticulously crafted sixth album was Walter Becker and Donald Fagen's stab at becoming mainstream jazz-pop superstars. And thanks to sweet, smart, slippery tracks like "Deacon Blues" and "Peg," they did just that – and won a Grammy for Best Engineered album too.
N.W.A., ‘Straight Outta Compton’
"Do I look like a motherfucking role model?" Ice Cube asks on "Gangsta Gangsta": You do not, sir! Cube's rage, Eazy-E's thug nasty and Dr. Dre's police-siren beats slammed America into a new hip-hop era.
Dr. John, ‘GRIS-Gris’
In the Sixties, New Orleans piano player Mac Rebennack moved to L.A., encountered California psychedelia, rechristened himself Dr. John, the Night Tripper, and made this swamp-funk classic. GRIS-Gris blends New Orleans R&B, voodoo chants and chemical inspiration.
Phil Spector, ‘A Christmas Gift for You’
The best holiday album in pop-music history. Ronnie Spector melts "Frosty the Snowman" and takes the innocence out of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." And it all comes in a vortex of Spector's exhilarating Wall of Sound production.
B.B. King, ‘Live at the Regal’
Recorded in Chicago in 1964, as a new audience of white rock fans was discovering the blues, Live at the Regal is B.B. King's definitive live set. His guitar sound is precise and powerful, driving emotional versions of some of his most influential songs, including "Every Day I Have the Blues" and "How Blue Can You Get."
Blondie, ‘Parallel Lines’
New Wave's big pop breakthrough, Parallel Lines is a perfect synthesis of raw punk edge, Sixties-pop smarts and downtown-New York glamour. Debbie Harry created a new kind of rock & roll sex appeal that brought New York demimonde style to the mainstream. Madonna was surely watching.
The Meters, ‘Rejuvenation’
New Orleans producer Allen Toussaint built hit records with a taut Morse-code style of rhythm guitar rooted in the marching-band and party beats of the Crescent City. That funky discipline defines this LP; the Meters perfect a balance of funk, rock and Dixie R&B on gems such as "People Say" and "Hey Pocky A-Way."
Dr. Dre, ‘The Chronic’
Death Row, 1992
Dr. Dre had already taken gangsta rap mainstream with N.W.A. On The Chronic, he funked up the rhymes even further with samples of old George Clinton hits, a smooth bass-heavy production and the laid-back delivery of then-unknown rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg.
The Replacements, ‘Tim’
On the Mats' major-label debut, singer-guitarist Paul Westerberg segues brilliantly from heroic power-chord swagger ("Bastards of Young") to shabby contemplation ("Here Comes a Regular"). No preNirvana band did it better.
Elton John, ‘Greatest Hits’
This single-disc collection – released during John's creative and commercial peak – includes nearly every Top 10 single he had during that era, from "Your Song" to "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." It documents why the piano man was one of the biggest-selling pop stars of the Seventies.
Pavement, ‘Slanted and Enchanted’
The quintessential American indie-rock album. The playing is relaxed, the production primitive, the lyrics quirky, the melodies seductive. But the noise-streaked sound is intense, even as Stephen Malkmus displays his love of Seventies-AM pop.
The Notorious B.I.G., ‘Ready to Die’
Bad Boy, 1994
B.I.G. (a.k.a. Biggie Smalls) took the gritty life experience of his hard-knock Brooklyn youth and crammed it into Ready to Die, hip-hop's greatest debut. "Big Poppa" is the hit sex jam, "Juicy" made you laugh as you danced, and on "Things Done Changed" and "Everyday Struggle," he relates gangsta tales in a voice as thick as his waistline.
Bruce Springsteen, ‘The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle’
Springsteen's second album shook the "New Dylan" tag and applied his Jersey-bar-band skills to some of the loosest, jazziest, funniest songs he'd ever write – such as "Rosalita" and "Kitty's Back."
Original Soundtrack, ‘Saturday Night Fever’
Disco at its megaplatinum apex: The Bee Gees' silvery-helium harmonies melt into creamily syncopated grooves, and the Trammps' hot-funk assault "Disco Inferno" and Tavares' yearning "More Than a Woman" affirm disco's black-R&B roots.
Black Sabbath, ‘Paranoid’
Warner Bros., 1970
Sabbath ruled for bummed-out Seventies kids, and nearly every metal and extreme rock band of the past four decades owes a debt to Tony Iommi's granite-fuzz guitar, the Visigoth rhythm machine of Bill Ward and Geezer Butler, and Ozzy Osbourne's agonized bray in "Paranoid," "Iron Man" and "War Pigs."
Television, ‘Marquee Moon’
Television were the guitar mystics on the CBGB scene, mixing the howl of the Velvet Underground, the epic song lengths of Yes and the double-helix guitar sculpture of Quicksilver Messenger Service. Their debut was as exhilarating in its lyrical ambitions as the Ramones' first album was in its brutal simplicity.
Talking Heads, ‘Remain in Light’
On this New Wave watershed, the avant-punk avatars became polyrhythmic pop magicians. David Byrne and Co. combined the thrust of P-Funk, the kinky grooves of Afropop and the studied adventurousness of producer Brian Eno – and they still had a pop hit with "Once in a Lifetime."
Iggy and the Stooges, ‘Raw Power’
Iggy Pop had dyed silver hair and a hard-drug habit when David Bowie helped get the rudderless Stooges a deal with Columbia. Pop and new guitarist James Williamson responded with hellbent ferocity on punk eruptions like "Search and Destroy" and "Gimme Danger."
The Byrds, ‘Younger Than Yesterday’
Amid internal strife, the former Next Beatles made their first mature album, a blend of space-flight twang and electric hoedown infused with the glow of 1967 yet cut with realism.
Bob Marley and the Wailers, ‘Catch a Fire’
Marley's major-label debut expanded his audience beyond Jamaica without diluting his bedrock reggae power. Producer and label boss Chris Blackwell remixed the original Jamaican sessions for international ears, but the Wailers' ghetto rage comes across uncut.
Janis Joplin, ‘Pearl’
On Pearl, Joplin made a solo album worthy of her Texas blues-mama wail. Whether singing hippie gospel or country soul, she never sounded more intimate and assured. "Me and Bobby McGee" was a Number One single, but Joplin didn’t get to enjoy her triumph. She died of a drug overdose before the album was finished.
Moby Grape, ‘Moby Grape’
San Francisco rock at its '67 peak, this is genuine hippie power pop. Moby Grape sang like demons and wrote crisp songs packed with lysergic country-blues excitement, while the band's three guitarists – Jerry Miller, Peter Lewis and Skip Spence – created a network of lightning.
Run-DMC, ‘Raising Hell’
Working with producer Rick Rubin, the Queens crew made an undeniable album that forced the mainstream to cross over to hip-hop. Run and DMC talked trash over Jam Master Jay's killer mixology, and they bum-rushed MTV with a vandalistic cover of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way," featuring Steven Tyler and Joe Perry.
Original Soundtrack, ‘The Harder They Come’
This album took reggae worldwide. The film's star, Jimmy Cliff, sings four songs, including the hymn "Many Rivers to Cross," and greats like Desmond Dekker, the Melodians, and Toots and the Maytals showed the richness of the new beat.
Sly and the Family Stone, ‘Stand!’
Funk-rock-soul party politics at its most inclusive and exciting – Sly Stone rides the bonfire momentum of the civil rights movement in "Stand!" and "You Can Make It If You Try" without denying the intrinsic divisions that threatened civil war (see "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey").
The Byrds, ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’
Driven by new member Gram Parsons, the Byrds nailed a bold Nashville classicism, dressing Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard songs in steel guitar and rock & roll drive. The results set the stage for country rock.
Etta James, ‘At Last!’
1955's "Roll With Me, Henry" made this self-described "juvenile delinquent" a sexually precocious teenage star. Six years later, Etta James bloomed into a fiery interpreter on this spellbinding LP. Hitting the pop and R&B charts, she created a new vocal model: the crossover diva.
Kanye West, ‘Late Registration’
Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2005
Here, Kanye really started showing off. Ranging from triumphal autobiography ("Touch the Sky") to witty club pop ("Gold Digger"), James Bond themes to Houston hip-hop, his second disc remade the musical landscape in his own oddball image
Derek and the Dominos, ‘Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs’
Deeply in love with his best friend George Harrison's wife, Eric Clapton came up with an album of love-tortured blues that gets a kick from guest Duane Allman, the rare guitarist who could challenge him.
The Rolling Stones, ‘Out of Our Heads’
Here's where the Stones started to leave the R&B and blues covers behind. Their fourth album in America featured three defining Jagger–Richards originals, each a masterpiece of libidinal menace: "The Last Time," the gently vicious "Play With Fire" and "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," a song that is the very definition of riff.
The Who, ‘The Who Sell Out’
The Who's first concept album was a tribute to the U.K.'s offshore pirate-radio stations – strung together with mock commercials ("Heinz Baked Beans") and genuine radio jingles. It's their funniest record, and the mini rock opera, "Rael," gave a hint of epic things to come.
Cream, ‘Disraeli Gears’
Cream's sharpest, most linear album focused its instrumental explorations into colorful pop songs: "Strange Brew" (slinky funk), "Dance the Night Away" (trippy jangle), "Tales of Brave Ulysses" (a wah-wah freakout) and the hit "Sunshine of Your Love," driven by Ginger Baker's relentless Native American tribal beat.
Joni Mitchell, ‘Court and Spark’
Smooth and straight-ahead, Court and Spark is the biggest record of Mitchell's career. Working with saxophonist Tom Scott's fusion group, L.A. Express, Mitchell settles into a folk-pop-jazz groove that remains a landmark of breezy sophistication, particularly on the Top 10 single "Help Me."
The Mamas and the Papas, ‘If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears’
The First Family of Cali-folk rode their gorgeous four-part harmonies to pop stardom – but Papa John Phillips' sunny melodies had a seductively dark undercurrent.
Radiohead, ‘The Bends’
The first half of Nineties rock was shaped by Nirvana, and the second half was dominated by Radiohead. Their second album married a majestic and somber guitar sound to Thom Yorke's anguished-choirboy vocals, drawing on the epic grandeur of U2 and the melancholy of the Smiths.
The Velvet Underground, ‘Loaded’
Lou Reed quit the Velvets just before their fourth album was finished. But he left behind two perfect hits ("Sweet Jane," "Rock & Roll") and a record that highlights the doo-wop roots and Sun Records crackle buried in VU's noir-guitar maelstrom.
The Rolling Stones, ‘Aftermath’
The first Stones album completely written by Jagger–Richards was full of bad-boy songs about Swinging London's overnight stars, groupies, hustlers and parasites. It's got tough riffs ("It's Not Easy"), girls seeking kicks ("Under My Thumb"), zooming psychedelia ("Paint It Black") and baroque-folk gallantry ("I Am Waiting").
David Bowie, ‘Hunky Dory’
Recorded when he was 24, Bowie's first great album was a visionary blend of gay camp, flashy rock guitar and saloon-piano balladry. Bowie marked the polar ends of his artistic ambitions with tribute songs to Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol while inventing – and perfecting – a new style of rock & roll glamour.
Sam Cooke, ‘Portrait of a Legend’
Cooke was a gospel star who crossed over to rock & roll, helping to invent soul music. This career-spanning collection peaks with the civil rights anthem "A Change Is Gonna Come," a posthumous hit after he was shot to death at an L.A. motel in 1964.
Ramones, ‘Rocket to Russia’
The Ramones' third album took the gospel of three chords, a jackhammer beat and ripped denim beyond New York. Rocket to Russia was a polished bottling of the quartet's CBGB-stage napalm, bursting with Top 40 classicism and deepened by the lonely-boy poignancy of Joey Ramone's vocals.
Ray Charles, ‘Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music’
Charles' biggest-selling record was the audacious racial-boundary-smasher its title promised, applying gospel grit and luscious soul-pop strings to standards by Hank Williams and Eddy Arnold.
James Taylor, ‘Sweet Baby James’
Warner Bros., 1970
Taylor went through a private hell on the way to recording his hugely successful second album – including two stays in a psychiatric institution (a fellow patient's suicide inspired "Fire and Rain"). But the confessional lyrics, spare melodicism and quiet strength in his voice made the album a model of Seventies folk-pop healing.
John Coltrane, ‘Giant Steps’
Coltrane made two giant steps in 1959: playing on Miles Davis' Kind of Blue and recording his first classic. He played flying clusters of notes that declared new possibilities for jazz improvisation and predicted the ferocious, harmonically open lyricism of his mid-Sixties albums.
Cream, ‘Fresh Cream’
Bassist Jack Bruce, drummer Ginger Baker and guitarist Eric Clapton – rock's first supergroup – put a psychedelic pop spin on the blues. Their debut is tight and concise, a blueprint for the band’s onstage jams, where they stretched these tunes into quarter-hour improvisations.
Frank Sinatra, ‘In the Wee Small Hours’
The first set of songs Sinatra recorded specifically for an LP sustains a midnight mood of loneliness and lost love – it’s a prototypical concept album. Listen close and you'll hear the soft intake of his breath.
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