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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.

32

The Rolling Stones, ‘Let It Bleed’

London, 1969

The Rolling Stones' final record of the Sixties kicks off with the terrifying "Gimme Shelter," the song that came to symbolize not only the catastrophe of the Stones' free show at Altamont but the death of the decade's utopian spirit. And the entire album burns with apocalyptic cohesion: the sex-mad desperation of "Live With Me"; the murderous blues of "Midnight Rambler"; Keith Richards' lethal, biting guitar on "Monkey Man"; the epic moralism, with honky-tonk piano and massed vocal chorus, of "You Can't Always Get What You Want," which Mick Jagger wrote on acoustic guitar in his bedroom. "Somebody said that we could get the London Bach Choir," Jagger recalled years later, "and we said, 'That will be a laugh.'"

31

Bob Dylan, ‘Bringing It All Back Home’

Columbia, 1965

"It's very complicated to play with electricity," Bob Dylan said in the summer of 1965. "You're dealing with other people… Most people who don't like rock & roll can't relate to other people." But on Side One of this pioneering album, Dylan amplifies his cryptic, confrontational songwriting with guitar lightning and galloping drums. "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and "Maggie's Farm" are loud, caustic and funny as hell. Dylan returns to solo acoustic guitar on the four superb songs on Side Two, including the scabrous "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" and the closing ballad, "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," arguably his finest, most affectionate song of dismissal.

30

Joni Mitchell, ‘Blue’

Reprise, 1971

"The Blue album, there's hardly a dishonest note in the vocals," Joni Mitchell told Rolling Stone in 1979. "At that period of my life, I had no persona defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world, and I couldn't pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy." With song after song of regrets and sorrow, this may be the ultimate breakup album. Its whispery minimalism is also Mitchell's greatest musical achievement. Stephen Stills and James Taylor lend an occasional hand, but in "California," "Carey," "This Flight Tonight" and the devastating title track, Mitchell sounds utterly alone in her melancholy, turning the sadness into tender, universally powerful art.

29

Led Zeppelin, ‘Led Zeppelin’

Atlantic, 1969

On their first album, Led Zeppelin were still in the process of inventing their own sound, moving on from the heavy rave-ups of guitarist Jimmy Page's previous band, the Yardbirds. But from the beginning, Zeppelin had the astonishing fusion of Page's lyrical guitar-playing, Robert Plant's paint-peeling love-hound yowl, and John Paul Jones and John Bonham's avalanche boogie. "We were learning what got us off most and what got people off most," said Plant. Yet the template for everything Zeppelin achieved in the 1970s is here: brutal rock ("Communication Breakdown"), thundering power balladry ("Your Time Is Gonna Come"), acid-flavored folk blues ("Babe I'm Gonna Leave You"). Heavy metal still lives in its shadow.

28

The Who, ‘Who’s Next’

Decca, 1971

Pete Townshend said he suffered a nervous breakdown when his planned follow-up to the rock opera Tommy, the ambitious, theatrical Lifehouse, fell apart. But he was left with an extraordinary cache of songs that the Who honed for what became their best studio album, Who's Next. "Won't Get Fooled Again," "Bargain" and "Baba O'Riley" (named in tribute to avant-garde composer Terry Riley and Townshend's spiritual guru Meher Baba) all beam with epic majesty, often spiked with synthesizers. "I like synthesizers," Townshend said, "because they bring into my hands things that aren't in my hands: the sound of the orchestra, French horns, strings… You press a switch and it plays it back at double speed."

27

U2, ‘The Joshua Tree’

Island, 1987

"America's the promised land to a lot of Irish people," Bono told Rolling Stone. "I'm one in a long line of Irishmen who made the trip." On U2's fifth studio album, the band immersed itself in the mythology of the United States, while the Edge exploited the poetic echo of digital delay, drowning his trademark arpeggios in rippling tremolo. One of the most moving songs is "Running to Stand Still," a stripped-down slide-guitar ballad about heroin addiction, but for the most part this is an album that turns spiritual quests and political struggles into uplifting stadium singalongs: See hits like "Where the Streets Have No Name" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," a rock anthem with a gospel soul.

26

Fleetwood Mac, ‘Rumours’

Warner Bros., 1977

On Rumours, Fleetwood Mac turned private turmoil into gleaming, melodic public art. The band's two couples – bassist John and singer-keyboard player Christine McVie, who were married; guitarist Lindsey Buckingham and vocalist Stevie Nicks, who were not – were in the midst of breakups during the album's protracted sessions. This lent a highly charged, confessional aura to songs like Buckingham's "Go Your Own Way," Nicks' "Dreams," Christine's "Don't Stop" and the group-composed anthem to betrayal, "The Chain." The Mac's catchy exposés, produced with California-sunshine polish, touched a nerve: Rumours became the gold standard of late-Seventies FM radio and the seventh-bestselling studio album of all time.

25

James Brown, ‘Live at the Apollo’

King, 1963

Perhaps the greatest live album ever recorded. From the breathless buildup of the spoken intro through terse, sweat-soaked early hits such as "Try Me" and "Think" into 11 minutes of the raw ballad "Lost Someone," climaxing with a frenzied nine-song medley and ending with "Night Train," Live at the Apollo is pure, uncut soul. And it almost didn't happen. James Brown defied King Records label boss Syd Nathan's opposition to a live album by arranging to record a show himself – on October 24th, 1962, the last date in a run at Harlem's historic Apollo Theater. His intuition proved correct: Live at the Apollo – the first of four albums Brown recorded there – charted for 66 weeks.

24

Stevie Wonder, ‘Innervisons’

Tamala, 1973

Stevie Wonder's high-flying musical experimentation and penetrating lyrical insight made Innervisions a textured, but never self-indulgent, work of soulful self-discovery. Fusing social realism with spiritual idealism, he brings expressive color and irresistible funk to his keyboards on "Too High" (a cautionary anti-drug song) and "Higher Ground" (which echoes Martin Luther King Jr.'s message of transcendence). The album's centerpiece is "Living for the City," a cinematic depiction of exploitation and injustice. He brought his most innovative music to life in the nick of time: Three days after Innervisions was released, Wonder was put into a four-day coma after the car he was traveling in collided with a logging truck.

23

John Lennon, ‘Plastic Ono Band’

Capitol, 1970

Also known as the "primal scream" album, referring to the painful therapy that gave rise to its songs, Plastic Ono Band was John Lennon's first proper solo album and rock & roll's most self-revelatory recording. Lennon attacks and ­denies idols and icons, including his own former band ("I don't believe in Beatles," he sings in "God"), to hit a pure, raw core of confession that, in its echo-drenched, garage-rock crudity, is years ahead of punk. He deals with childhood loss in "Mother" and skirts blasphemy in "Working Class Hero": "You're still fucking peasants as far as I can see." But consigning Sixties dreams to the rubbish bin, there's also room for a fragile sense of possibility (see "Hold On"). Plastic Ono Band is the sound of Year Zero.