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
The Yardbirds, ‘Roger the Engineer (a.k.a. Over Under Sideways Down)’
Jeff Beck was in the Yardbirds only briefly, but here he pushed the Brit blues rockers in a more adventurous, psychedelic direction.
Jay-Z, ‘The Black Album’
Jay-Z's "farewell record" proves once again that he's "pound for pound . . . the best to ever come around." Hova recounts his mythic rise ("From bricks to billboards, from grams to Grammys") and body-slams his enemies in the walloping rap-rock assault "99 Problems."
Muddy Waters, ‘At Newport 1960’
A stomping live document of the period when Waters' Chicago blues started reaching a wider pop audience. Newport has his classics – "Hoochie Coochie Man," a torrid "Got My Mojo Working" – delivered by a tough, tight band anchored by harp genius James Cotton.
Pink Floyd, ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’
"I'm full of dust and guitars," Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett said. Here's what that sounds like. The band's debut is all playful, psychedelic imagery and acid guitars – both poppy ("See Emily Play") and spaced-out freaky ("Interstellar Overdrive").
De La Soul, ‘3 Feet High and Rising’
Tommy Boy, 1989
At the end of the Eighties, De La declared a "D.A.I.S.Y. Age," which stood for "Da Inner Sound, Y'All." No gold chains, just samples, skits, jokes and beats, biting everyone from P-Funk to Hall and Oates and Johnny Cash.
Talking Heads, ‘Stop Making Sense’
This soundtrack to Jonathan Demme's 1984 concert film functions as a great band history. It begins with a spare version of "Psycho Killer" and builds to an expansive "Take Me to the River," where the Heads are joined by Parliament great Bernie Worrell. Eighties art funk at its finest.
Lou Reed, ‘Berlin’
Reed followed up his breakthrough album, Transformer, with "my version of Hamlet." A bleak song cycle about an abusive, drug-fueled relationship, it's hugely ambitious but also one of the darker records ever made – slow, druggy and heavily orchestrated by producer Bob Ezrin.
Meat Loaf, ‘Bat Out of Hell’
Meat Loaf's megaselling, megabombastic mega-album was written by pianist Jim Steinman, who'd intended some of the material for a new Peter Pan. This is one of rock's most theatrical, grandiose records, yet Loaf brings real emotion to "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad" and "Paradise by the Dashboard Light."
Depeche Mode, ‘Violator’
For many Depeche Mode fans, Violator is the crowning glory of the boys' black-leather period. In "Sweetest Perfection," "Halo" and "World in My Eyes," they turn teen angst and sexual obsession into grand synth-pop melodrama, and their attempt at guitar rock resulted in a hit with "Personal Jesus."
Play was the techno album that proved a Mac could have a soul. Moby took ancient blues and gospel voices and layered them with dance grooves, on songs such as "Porcelain" and "Natural Blues." This was an album with a strange, haunting beauty – especially for advertisers, who mined Play for countless TV commercials
Black Flag, ‘Damaged’
MCA Records refused to release this, denouncing it as "immoral" and "anti-parent." High praise, but Black Flag lived up to it, defining L.A. hardcore punk with violent guitar and the pissed-off scream of Henry Rollins, especially on "TV Party" and "Rise Above." Punks still listen to Damaged, and parents still hate it.
Tom Waits, ‘The Heart of Saturday Night’
By the time Waits made his second album, he'd fully developed his talent for growling, jazzy beatnik gutter tales, and had largely dispensed with the love songs. He does it best on "Diamonds on My Windshield" and "The Ghosts of Saturday Night."
Big Brother and the Holding Company, ‘Cheap Thrills’
These San Francisco acid rockers were the most simpatico band Janis Joplin ever had, especially when its rough racket backs her up on "Piece of My Heart," perhaps her greatest recording.
Jethro Tull, ‘Aqualung’
Tull were hairy prog-rock philosophers who decried organized religion ("Hymn 43") and modern hypocrisy ("Aqualung") while incorporating flute solos. With several FM-radio hits, this record made Tull into a major arena band. The cover painting gave Seventies kids nightmares.
Radiohead, ‘In Rainbows’
After the pay-what-you-like release hoopla died down, what were fans left with? How 'bout the most intense love songs Thom Yorke has ever sung, and a warm live-percussion feel that gives the whole album the vibe of a hippie jam session. One that's taking place at the end of the world, of course.
They were the Seattle punk scene's headbanging answer to Led Zeppelin II. But they became real songwriters on Superunknown, shaping their angst into grunge anthems like "Black Hole Sun." "[We] realized the importance of melody," said Chris Cornell. "Maybe we've been listening to Bryan Ferry."
Graham Parker, ‘Squeezing Out Sparks’
An angry young crank in the mode of Elvis Costello, this former gas-station attendant rode the wave of U.K. punk. His fifth album combines bar-band rock with New Wave hooks, and his bitter paranoia shines through on every track.
X, ‘Wild Gift’
John Doe and Exene Cervenka harmonize about doomed love over L.A. garage-rock thrash, changing the emotional language of punk. They were the White Stripes of their day, a young couple messing with country and blues in gems such as "Adult Books," "Beyond and Back" and "We're Desperate."
Richard and Linda Thompson, ‘Shoot Out the Lights’
The British folk-rock duo's last album together is a harrowing portrait of a marriage gone bad, made as their marriage collapsed. The catchiest song: "Wall of Death." The scariest: "Walking on a Wire."
The Beatles, ‘Help!’
The moptops' second movie was a Swinging London goof, but the soundtrack included the classics "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" and "Ticket to Ride," as well as the lovely "I've Just Seen a Face." Help! didn't break new ground, but it paved the way for the Beatles' next stop: Rubber Soul.
Neil Young, ‘Tonight’s the Night’
Young made his darkest, most emotionally frayed album as a tribute to two friends who died from drugs, Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry. Young sounds like he's on the edge of a breakdown in the mournful ballads "Tired Eyes" and "Speakin' Out," recorded with a world-weary looseness.
James Brown, ‘In the Jungle Groove’
A compilation of Mr. Dynamite's singles from '69 to '70, including the endlessly sampled "Funky Drummer" and "Give It Up or Turnit a Loose," where Brown drops the heaviest funk of his – or anyone's – life.
Sonic Youth, ‘Daydream Nation’
Sonic Youth have had a long, brilliant career making trippy art punk, and this is their triumph. Thurston Moore's and Lee Ranaldo's guitars are like antennae picking up otherworldly signals and channeling them into the scuzzy urban haze of "Teen Age Riot" and "Eric's Trip."
Liz Phair, ‘Exile in Guyville’
A studio expansion of Phair's homemade Girlysound cassettes, Exile's frank sex talk caused a stir. But it's the lacerating honesty of tracks such as "Divorce Song" that sticks, and "Fuck and Run" is one of the saddest songs ever written about dreaming of romance and settling for less.
The Cure, ‘Disintegration’
According to the kids on South Park, this is the best album ever made. According to many depressive Eighties-minded kids, it's the only album ever made – gloppy eyeliner at its grandest. On "Fascination Street," Robert Smith's voice shakes like milk as he makes adolescent angst sound so wonderfully, wonderfully pretty.
Eric Clapton, ‘Slowhand’
"Slowhand" was the nickname given to Clapton by the Yardbirds' manager. On this quintessential album, he mixes candlelit love songs and guitar-hero riffs; "Cocaine" and "Wonderful Tonight" are the hits, but don't overlook "Next Time You See Her," a gentle melody loaded with a death threat to a lover's suitor.
David Bowie, ‘Station to Station’
The Kraut-disco title track is where Bowie proclaims himself the Thin White Duke. Thin he was: Station to Station was recorded in a blizzard of cocaine in Los Angeles. "TVC 15" is New Orleans R&B as robotic funk; "Golden Years" is James Brown from outer space, with Bowie's amazing falsetto.
The Police, ‘Ghost in the Machine’
Here, the previously punkish trio added synth strings and politics, and blew up even further. "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" is a pop smart bomb, and "Invisible Sun," about the violence in Northern Ireland, is genuinely moving.
Randy Newman, ‘Sail Away’
Producer Lenny Waronker called him the King of the Suburban Blues Singers. This is Newman's quiet masterpiece, less rock than fuck-you cabaret. Even now, "Political Science" ("Let's drop the big one/And see what happens") is relevant; either Newman is brilliant or we haven't come a long way, baby.
Nick Drake, ‘Pink Moon’
Drake recorded his last album in a couple of nights, delivered the tapes to Island Records and checked himself into a psychiatric ward. If the music were as dark as the lyrics, it might be unlistenable. But Drake's soothing vocals and unadorned acoustic picking make Moon unfold with supernatural tenderness.
The greatest sequel since The Godfather: Part II. The second half of the one-two punch Radiohead began with Kid A was smoother on the surface yet just as disorienting underneath, bringing more of the rock guitars that its predecessor held back, but in all kinds of mutated forms.
The Wailers, ‘Burnin’ ‘
Righteous and seriously in the pocket, this is the last Wailers album with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. Bob Marley's soulful cry is rivaled by the sticky organ riffs and fat-bottom beats, and their original version of "I Shot the Sheriff" is far more desperate than Eric Clapton's hit cover.
The O’Jays, ‘Back Stabbers’
Philadelphia International, 1972
After Vietnam and Watergate, soul music slipped into darkness in the early Seventies. The title track of this Philly-soul album was the writing on the wall: funky and paranoid, much like the times.
Pixies, ‘Surfer Rosa’
Smack in between hardcore punk and alternative, it was difficult to make sense of the Pixies' ferocious noise. Their secret weapon was leaping from sweet to screaming, pensive to pummeling: On "Gigantic," Kim Deal sings like Peppermint Patty as the band drives a spike into Eighties rock.
The Velvet Underground, ‘The Velvet Underground’
The album that turned folk music inside out. VU began as a black-booted antidote to flower power, so the quiet disillusion, exhaustion and ache here is as explosive as their first album's forbidding howl.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, ‘Damn the Torpedoes’
With hair like Mick Jagger's and a voice like Bob Dylan's in tune, Petty and his bar band de-frilled classic rock: In 1979, "Here Comes My Girl" seemed to keep the promises Jagger et al. forgot they'd made.
Lauryn Hill, ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’
Hill took Seventies soul and made it boom and signify to the hip-hop generation on her solo debut. The production was subtle and glorious on heartbreakers such as "Ex-Factor" and the swinging sermon "Doo Wop (That Thing)."
Nirvana shine brightly on this striking live set because the volume is turned down just low enough to let Kurt Cobain's tortured vulnerability glow. The powerful, reverent covers of Lead Belly, David Bowie and (three) Meat Puppets songs sum up Nirvana as a haunted, theatrical and, ultimately, truly raw band.
Jane’s Addiction, ‘Nothing’s Shocking’
Warner Bros., 1988
They thought Led Zeppelin were a funk band, and when they learned this was not true, they carried on anyway. On tracks like "Mountain Song," Jane's major-label debut rewrites pre-Nirvana rock history, reconciling punk and metal with shredding riffs on oceanic songs. And they even had a hit ballad with "Jane Says."
Various Artists, ‘The Sun Records Collection’
Blues without polish, country without corn, and rockabilly played with brainless abandon from Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash – as well as obscure gems like Bill Justis' aptly named "Raunchy."
Red Hot Chili Peppers, ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’
Warner Bros., 1991
The Peppers' high point – with John Frusciante's energizing, soulful guitar riffs, a huge assist from producer Rick Rubin and the surprise hit ballad "Under the Bridge."
Creedence Clearwater Revival, ‘Willy and the Poor Boys’
The best of the six albums CCR released between 1968 and 1970; John Fogerty is your chooglin' buddy, even when he's raining down fire and doom on "Effigy."
Frank Sinatra, ‘Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!’
An album that meant to deny the rock & roll that was then changing America – and succeeded. The songs were standards, most 10 or 20 years old, but Sinatra and arranger Nelson Riddle showed how timeless jazzy, hip sophistication can be.
The Beatles, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’
The Richard Lester film showed the Beatles' charm. The soundtrack deepened listeners' sense of their musical genius in the off-kilter beauty of John Lennon's "If I Fell," the rockabilly bounce of Paul McCartney's "Can't Buy Me Love," and the great leap forward of George Harrison's guitar work on the 12-string Rickenbacker.
Burrowing into the studio with sampledelic producers the Dust Brothers, Beck came back with a Technicolor version of his Woody Guthrie-meets-Grandmaster Flash vision, demonstrating to his rock peers that turntables had a brighter future than refried grunge.
Lucinda Williams, ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’
It took three torturous years to finish this alt-country masterwork, but it was worth it. Williams writes songs that explore the rootlessness of American life, with vivid imagery and gravel-guitar beauty.
Jeff Buckley, ‘Grace’
Buckley had a voice like an oversexed angel, and the songs here shimmer and twist. The fierce rocker "Eternal Life" upends Led Zeppelin's take on the blues while honoring it: Instead of a hellhound on his trail, Buckley, who drowned in 1997, evokes immortality bearing down on him.
Bob Dylan, ‘John Wesley Harding’
Recovering from his 1966 motorcycle crash, Dylan took a left turn into country music and ascetic mysticism, connecting to Nashville through a host of characters from the Bible and America’s rugged history. It’s his most ominous album.
Public Enemy, ‘Fear of a Black Planet’
Def Jam, 1990
Public Enemy expanded their widescreen vision of hip-hop on their third album, which included the righteous noise of "Fight the Power," the uplifting sentiment of "Brothers Gonna Work It Out" and the agit-funk of "911 Is a Joke."
Dolly Parton, ‘Coat of Many Colors’
RCA Victor, 1971
Parton's starkest, most affecting album. The title track is about wearing rags but staying proud; on "Traveling Man," Parton's mom runs off with her man; on "If I Lose My Mind," her boyfriend has sex with another woman in front of her.