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
Jackson Browne, ‘For Everyman’
On his second album, Browne emerged as the J.D. Salinger of the L.A. singer-songwriters; songs like "These Days" (first recorded by Velvet Underground singer Nico) capture the shift from the idealistic Sixties to the disillusioned Seventies.
Big Star, ‘Third/Sister Lovers’
Big Star recorded their third and final album in 1974, but it didn't get released until 1978, in part because singer Alex Chilton sounds like he's having a nervous breakdown. It's a record of gorgeous, disjointed heartbreak ballads.
The Police, ‘Synchronicity’
"I do my best work when I'm in pain and turmoil," Sting told Rolling Stone. And indeed, the dissolution of his first marriage produced some of his best work yet, including "King of Pain" and the stalker's anthem "Every Breath You Take." There was pain and turmoil in the band, too – it would be the Police's last album.
Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto, ‘Getz/Gilberto’
Brazilian bossa nova met American jazz, as saxman Getz teamed up with guitarist-singer Gilberto and pianist-composer Antonio Carlos Jobim. Gilberto's wife, Astrud, became a star herself with a sensual guest vocal on "The Girl From Ipanema."
MC5, ‘Back in the USA’
In the late Sixties, the Motor City Five were the house band for the White Panther Party, devoted to "dope, guns and fucking in the streets." But on their second album, they channel their ferocious sound and politics into the concise, Chuck Berry-like riffs of "The American Ruse," "Looking at You" and "Shaking Street."
Steve Miller Band, ‘Fly Like an Eagle’
After a 1972 car accident sidelined him for nearly a year, Miller returned with a pop-rock sound that dominated Seventies radio: slick guitar boogie as catchy as Abba and as danceable as disco. "Rock 'n Me" and "Take the Money and Run" kept Eagle on the charts for nearly two years.
War, ‘The World Is A Ghetto’
Cheap Trick, ‘In Color’
They were down-home Midwestern boys from Rockford, Illinois, but Cheap Trick had a rock & roll approach as twisted as guitarist Rick Nielsen's bow ties. With blond pinup boy Robin Zander on vocals, the Trick rocked Beatles-style melodies such as "Oh Caroline," "Downed" and "Come On, Come On."
Devo, ‘Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!’
Warner Bros., 1978
They came from Akron, Ohio, wore matching jumpsuits and had a sinister theory of devolution. Their debut album runs on rubber-punk guitars and even more sinister mechanized New Wave beats.
Red Star, 1977
These New York synth punks evoke everything from the Velvet Underground to rockabilly. Martin Rev's low-budget electronics are violent and hypnotic; Alan Vega screams as a rhythmic device. Late-night listening to "Frankie Teardrop," a 10-minute-plus tale of a multiple murder, is not recommended.
The Pogues, ‘Rum Sodomy and The Lash’
With a voice like an ashtray, Shane MacGowan led this fabulous disaster of an Irish folk-punk band. Produced by Elvis Costello (who married bassist Cait O'Riordan), Rum careens between the maudlin and the explosive.
Sam Cooke, ‘Live At The Harlem Square Club, 1963’
Cooke was elegance personified, but he works this Florida club until it's hotter than hell, while sounding like he never breaks a sweat. He croons "For Sentimental Reasons" like a superlover, and when the crowd sings along with him, it's magic.
The Cure, ‘Boys Don’t Cry’
Before they became a goth-punk group, the Cure were a minimalist, inventive post-punk power trio. Boys is all hummable hooks, choppy guitars and mopey vocals. "10:15 Saturday Night" and "Jumping Someone Else's Train" are ingenious: You wait for a guitar solo and get a club-footed bass line instead.
Lil Wayne, ‘Tha Carter III’
Cash Money/Universal Motown, 2008
"I am so far from the others," Wayne rapped. "I can eat them for supper/Get in my spaceship and hover." And the N'awlins-bred genius made good on that boast on a weird, luscious pop-rap odyssey.
Beck, ‘Sea Change’
Breakup records are rarely this lovely. Sea Change is the pristine sound of everything falling apart, a glossy take on a bummed-out Sixties folk sound. The music seems to be floating up from the bottom of the ocean; the words were straight from Beck's broken heart.
Nirvana, ‘In Utero’
Nirvana hired hard-nosed Steve Albini to record the follow-up to Nevermind. Geffen asked them to clean up some of the results, and you can hear the tension in white-noise ruckus like "Serve the Servants." But the only thing that can explain the scalding "Rape Me" is inner pain.
Big Star, ‘#1 Record’
Alex Chilton and Chris Bell were the Memphis whiz kids at the heart of Big Star. They mixed British-pop finesse with all-American hard rock, from the surging "Feel" to the acoustic "Thirteen." Big Star didn't sell many records, but the Eighties explosion of poppy garage bands would've been unimaginable without them.
George Harrison, ‘All Things Must Pass’
Harrison had almost enough songs stored up from his Beatles days for a triple LP – the gas starts to run out during the jams on Side Six. But spiritual guitar quests like "My Sweet Lord" and "What Is Life" became classics.
Brian Eno, ‘Here Come The Warm Jets’
Eno's first solo album pioneered a new kind of glammy art rock: jagged, free-form and dreamy. "Baby's on Fire" and "Needles in the Camel's Eye" are vicious rockers with detached vocals, and Robert Fripp's warped guitars swarm and stutter.
PJ Harvey, ‘Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea’
Polly Harvey, happy? It was a surprise: But album number five found her in New York and in love. The result was lusher than anything she had recorded but also vibrant and surprisingly catchy.
Vampire Weekend, ‘Vampire Weekend’
Vampire Weekend came out of Columbia University displaying an affinity for boat shoes and African guitar music. Their debut was full of suavely seductive indie-pop songs about college campuses and trysts with Benetton-wearing ladies. Ezra Koenig's Paul Simon-esque melodies are as refined as his education.
Brian Eno, ‘Another Green World’
After years as a rock eccentric, Eno said goodbye to pop-song form with this album of pure synthetic beauty, mixing lush electronics ("Becalmed") with acoustic intruments ("Everything Merges With the Night") to cast a truly hypnotic spell.
The Police, ‘Outlandos D’Amour’
The Police got bigger but they never sounded fresher, absorbing reggae into the spare, bouncy sound of their debut album. "Roxanne" and "Next to You" prove Sting was already a top-notch songwriter.
Peter Wolf, ‘Sleepless’
Wolf accomplishes a rare feat on this modern blues album: He sings about adult roance without sounding jaded. The former J. Geils Band singer testifies about true love in his soulful growl, with help from friends like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
Cheap Trick, ‘At Budokan’
After three studio albums, Cheap Trick were bigger in Japan than in America. But this record of a live Tokyo gig became their first U.S. hit. The Japanese schoolgirls are practically the lead instrument here, screaming their lungs out to "Surrender" and "I Want You to Want Me."
Gram Parsons, ‘Grievous Angel’
Parsons helped invent country rock with the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, and he deepened it here. Emmylou Harris was his ideal singing partner, and their voices blend in the high-lonesome wail of "Brass Buttons" and "$1,000 Wedding." Weeks after finishing the album, Parsons was dead at 26.
Bruce Springsteen, ‘The Rising’
Springsteen's response to 9/11 was an extraordinary 15-song requiem that searched for meaning in the inexplicable tragedy while saluting the grace and courage of the dead and those who mourn them. The first E Street Band album since the Eighties, it kicked off Springsteen's creative resurgence.
Diana Ross and The Supremes, ‘Anthology’
In the heyday of Motown, the Supremes were their own hit factory, all glamour and heartbreak. Diana Ross high points like "You Keep Me Hangin' On" and "Where Did Our Love Go" are still spine-tingling.
The Ronettes, ‘Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes’
The Ronettes were pop goddesses dressed as Catholic schoolgirls gone to hell and back, with Ronnie Bennett belting out hits like "Be My Baby" over future husband Phil Spector's Wall of Sound.
Various Artists, ‘The Best of Girl Groups Volumes 1 and 2’
Buddy Holly and the Crickets, ‘The “Chirping” Crickets’
Holly was only 21 when he cut these tracks, some on an Oklahoma Air Force base. "That'll Be the Day," "Oh Boy!" and "Not Fade Away" fused country, rockabilly and R&B into epochal rock & roll.
Go! Discs, 1994
Portishead uses some of the same building blocks as fellow Bristol, England trip-hoppers Massive Attack – woozy break beats, jazzy samples, live guitar, girl-singer/guy-programmer dynamic – but Beth Gibbons' brooding, pop-cabaret vocals showed to the world that you could feel real pain over a trip-hop groove.
Paul McCartney and Wings, ‘Band On The Run’
Wings trekked to Lagos, Nigeria, for seven stressful weeks to make Band, regarded by many as McCartney's finest post-Beatles hour. Opening with the one-two punch of "Band on the Run" and "Jet," it proved that McCartney still knew how to rock.
Too ingenuous for punk, too unironic for New Wave, U2 arrived on Boy as big-time dreamers with the ambition to back it up. The Dublin foursome boasted Bono's arena-ready voice and the Edge's echoey, effects-laden guitar, as well as anthemic songs such as the club favorite "I Will Follow."
Tom Waits, ‘Mule Variations’
After five silent years, Variations was the victorious return of Waits' rawboned, bluesy art rock. Using found instruments for rhythm and Smokey Hormel's angular guitar for color, Waits careers from carnival baker to croaky balladeer. The highlights: the sad but sweet "Hold On" and "House Where Nobody Lives."
Van Halen, ‘Van Halen’
Warner Bros., 1978
This debut gave the world a new guitar hero (Eddie Van Halen) and charismatic frontman (David Lee Roth). Tunes such as "Runnin' With the Devil" and "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" put the swagger back in hard rock, and Eddie's jaw-dropping technique, particularly on "Eruption," raised the bar for rock guitar.
The Go- Go’s, ‘Beauty and The Beast’
The most popular girl group of the New Wave surfed to the top of the charts with "We Got the Beat" and "Our Lips Are Sealed." And its entire debut welded punkish spirit to party-minded pop.
Minuteman, ‘Doubles Nickels on The Dime’
"Our band could be your life," sing the Minutemen, perfectly articulating punk's Everyman ideal. Guitarist D. Boon and bassist Mike Watt push each other to fast, funny and agitated heights on this 45-song opus.
Wire, ‘Pink Flag’
This first-generation U.K. punk band made sparse tunes that erupted in combustible snippets on its 21-track debut album. The curt mania of "12XU" had a massive influence on hardcore punk, and bands like Sonic Youth and R.E.M. took to the arty blurt of songs like "Strange" and "Ex Lion Tamer."
Eric Clapton, ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’
Clapton returned from heroin addiction with a disc of mellow, springy grooves minus guitar histrionics. He paid tribute to Robert Johnson and Elmore James, but his cover of Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff" became his first Number One hit.
Bob Dylan, ‘Time Out of Mind’
The first of Dylan's three late-career triumphs. Producer Daniel Lanois' dark, atmospheric settings envelop Dylan in a sonic fog appropriate to the isolation and distance he sings of in a ravaged, weary voice. The songs – especially "Love Sick" and "Not Dark Yet" – are ghostly but forceful.
The Doors, ‘Strange Days’
The Doors set out into darker territory on their second album. The catchy single "Love Me Two Times" is overshadowed by a mood of foreboding and alienation, especially on "People Are Strange" and "When the Music's Over," which demands, "We want the world, and we want it now!"
Sinead O’Connor, ‘I Do Not Want What I haven’t Got’
O'Connor's second LP delivers true originality and range, from "Nothing Compares 2 U" to the maternal warmth of "Three Babies" to the fiddle and beatbox of "I Am Stretched on Your Grave."
The Clash, ‘Sandinista!’
The Clash's ballooning ambition peaked with this three-album set, named after the Nicaraguan revolutionary movement. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones reached beyond punk and reggae into dub, R&B, calypso, gospel and even a kids' chorus on "Career Opportunities."
PJ Harvey, ‘Rid of Me’
Like Patti Smith, she wanted to be Bob Dylan. Unlike Patti Smith, she played guitar very, very loud. Polly Jean Harvey's second album, recorded with Steve Albini, is charged with aggressive eroticism and rock fury (check the scalding title track). Rid of Me slams from blues to goth to grunge, often in the space of a single song.
Big Star, ‘Radio City’
As with the Velvet Underground, Big Star's influence far outstripped their commercial success. On this lean, guitar-driven LP, they come up with a new, upside-down pop sound, filtering their love of the Beatles through their Memphis-soul roots. Towering achievement: the blissful, sad "September Gurls."
Dr John, ‘Dr. John’s Gumbo’
After a series of eerie, voodoo-stoked records, pianist Mac Rebennack – a.k.a. Dr. John – returned to his New Orleans roots with spirited covers of classics such as "Iko Iko" and "Junko Partner." With his rolling piano figures and gritty vocals, he rekindled interest in the Crescent City sound.
Lynyrd Skynyrd, ‘(Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd)’
From the git-go, these Southern rockers played hard, lived hard and shot from the hip (with three guitars!). Discovered and produced by Al Kooper, Skynyrd offered taut rockers including "Poison Whiskey" and the ultimate anthem, "Freebird."
Other rappers were harder and better-armed, but nobody captured the creeping menace of life on the streets quite like this 20-year-old from New York's Queensbridge projects. With lines like "I never sleep, 'cause sleep is the cousin of death," Nas showed more poetic style than any MC since Rakim.
Red Hot Chili Peppers, ‘Californication’
Warner Bros., 1999
Turning their focus to songs instead of jams, the Chilis steered frontman Anthony Kiedis' voice into a radio-friendlier wail, and the reappearance of guitarist John Frusciante helped form beautifully composed songs such as "Scar Tissue."