Home Music Music Lists

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.

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.