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 Temptations, ‘Anthology’
Indisputably the greatest black vocal group of the modern era, this quintet created masterpiece after masterpiece of chugging, gospel-tinged soul. Anthology captures a slice of the Temps' prime, including "My Girl," "I Can't Get Next to You" and "I Wish It Would Rain."
Tom Waits, ‘Rain Dogs’
"I like that weird, ludicrous things," Waits once said. That understatement plays out most clearly on Rain Dogs, his finest portrait of the tragic kingdom of the streets. Waits abandons his grungy minimalism on the gorgeous "Downtown Train" and gets backing by Keith Richards on "Big Black Mariah."
ZZ Top, ‘Eliminator’
Warner Bros., 1983
Pure Americana: This song cycle about burning rubber, high heels and adrenaline took fuzzed-out Texas blues guitar and lashed it around rollicking boogie. ZZ Top's megaplatinum album also had a high-gloss Eighties sheen and singles like "Sharp Dressed Man" that would help it sell some 10 million copies.
Massive Attack, ‘Blue Lines’
One of the most influential records of the Nineties, Lines was perhaps the first post-hip-hop classic: a combination of rap, dub and soul that gave birth to what used to be called trip-hop. "What's important to us is the pace," said the band's 3D, "the weight of the bass and the mood."
Roxy Music, ‘For Your Pleasure’
Warner Bros., 1973
Keyboardist Brian Eno's last album with Roxy Music is the pop equivalent of Ultra-suede: highly stylish, abstract-leaning art rock. The collision of Eno's experimentalism and singer Bryan Ferry's romanticism gives Pleasure a wild, tense charm – especially on the driving "Editions of You" and "Do the Strand."
LCD Soundsystem, ‘Sound of Silver’
New York electro-punk kingpin James Murphy makes his masterpiece: Every track sounds like a different band's greatest hit, from the political punk goof "North American Scum" to the elegiac synth-pop breakup lament "Someone Great."
Randy Newman, ‘Good Old Boys’
Newman draws on his roots in the blues and New Orleans boogie to uncorck this blistering portrait of the American South. He shows that he was pop's most cutting satirist on "Rednecks" – a song that doesn't spare Northern or Southern racism; Newman once said he still gets nervous playing it in some cities.
The London-via-Sri Lanka art-punk funkateer came on like she knew she was kind of a big deal, and backed up her bravado. M.I.A.'s second album restyled hip-hop as one big international block party, mixing up beatbox riddims, playground rhymes, left-field samples and gunshots. It's a dance-off in a combat zone.
The Beatles, ‘Let It Be’
The sound of the world's greatest pop group at war with itself. John Lennon is at his most acidic; George Harrison's "I Me Mine" is about the sin of pride, sung with plaintive exhaustion; Paul McCartney's title track is like a survival mantra. Phil Spector pieced it all into a sad swan song.
Jackson Browne, ‘The Pretender’
Laid-back Southern California folk rock took on new weight with Browne's fourth album. His first wife committed suicide while he was writing these songs, and they became hard-bitten. "Say a prayer for the pretender," he sings, "who started out so young and strong, only to surrender."
The White Stripes, ‘Elephant’
Jack and Meg White proved their minimalist garage rock had more depth and power than anyone expected. On tracks like the slow-burning "Seven Nation Army" and "The Hardest Button to Button," Jack's songwriting finally matches his blues-fanboy, art-school shtick.
Don Henley, ‘The End of the Innocence’
Returning to the theme of "Desperado," the former Eagle hitched some of his finest melodies (especially on the gentle title track) to sharply focused lyrical studies of men in troubled transition – from youth to adulthood, innocence to responsibility.
Various Artists, ‘The Indestructible Beat of Soweto’
The best album ever tagged as "world music," this compilation of South African pop is still fresh – full of funky, loping beats and gruff vocals, with a sweet track by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who soon appeared on Graceland.
Wu-Tang Clan, ‘Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers’
East Coast hip-hop came back in 1993, thanks to a nine-man troupe of Staten Island MCs with a fascination for Hong Kong martial-arts mythology and producer RZA's love of menacing atmospherics. Hip-hop had rarely been this dirty.
Steely Dan, ‘Pretzel Logic’
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker make their love of jazz explicit, covering Duke Ellington and copping the intro of "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" from hard-bop pianist Horace Silver. The guitars on their third LP are dialed back for a sound that's slick and airtight without being cold. The lyrics? As twisted as ever.
Bob Dylan, ‘Love and Theft’
Blood, desperation and wicked gallows humor are in the air as Dylan and his road band provide a raucous tour of 20th-century musical America via jump blues, slow blues, rockabilly, Tin Pan Alley ballads and country swing. "Summer Days" sounds like the exact moment when R&B morphed into rock & roll.
The Who, ‘A Quick One (Happy Jack)’
The Who were in the middle of an experimental phase, and the results were fascinatingly quirky. "Boris the Spider" is a basso-profundo jape, and the miniopera title track foreshadows Pete Townshend's songwriting ambition.
Talking Heads, ‘More Songs About Buildings and Food’
The Heads' second album weaved funk and gospel (including a cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River") into their twitchy, Spartan sound, announcing themselves as the newest of the New Wave bands.
Modern Lovers, ‘Modern Lovers’
Jonathan Richman moved from Boston to New York in the hopes of sleeping on Lou Reed's couch. That influence shows on the two-chord anthem "Roadrunner." Recorded in 1972 but not released until 1976, Lovers hot-wired the Velvets' tough sounds to odes of suburban romanticism.
The Beach Boys, ‘Smile (2011 Version)’
The five-disc director's cut of the Greatest Pop Album Never Made is an unfinished symphony of exquisite ping-ponging harmonies and psychedelicized Cali-surf soul. The included demos and fragments show Brian Wilson painting his masterpiece.
Toots and the Maytals, ‘Funky Kingston’
Loose, funky, exuberant, Kingston is the quintessential document of Jamaica's greatest act after Bob Marley. Showcasing some of the Maytals' best songs ("Pressure Drop" and borrowing from soul, pop and gospel, the album introduced the world to the great Toots Hibbert.
Things were not well with TLC during the making of CrazySexyCool: Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes was lighting literal fires, and the trio would soon be filing for bankruptcy. But they emerged with the most effervescent and soulful girl-group R&B anyone had seen since the Supremes.
Oasis, ‘(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?’
With their second album, the fighting Gallagher brothers embraced the Stones and Beatles comparisons and established themselves as a force in their own right, especially on the majestic "Wonderwall."
John Lee Hooker, ‘The Ultimate Collection 1948-1990’
"Boogie Chillen" was Hooker's first hit and one of the last songs he ever played. In between that was a lifetime of pure mojo. Collection houses that historic song, plus "Boom Boom" and a voice Bonnie Raitt said could "tap into all the pain he'd ever felt."
"I have to recreate the universe every morning when I wake up," Björk said, explaining her second solo album's utter lack of musical inhibition. Post bounces from big-band jazz ("It's Oh So Quiet") to trip-hop. Fun fact: For her vocals, Björk extended her mic cord to a beach so she could sing to the sea.
Jackson Browne, ‘Late for the Sky’
On his dark third album, Browne explored, in the words of one Rolling Stone reviewer, the "romantic possibility in the shadow of an apocalypse." There's an undercurrent of dread on Late for the Sky, from "Before the Deluge" to "For a Dancer" – not to mention a lot of obvious songwriting genius.
Roxy Music, ‘Siren’
"New customers are always welcome!" Bryan Ferry joked as "Love Is the Drug" became his band's first U.S. hit. This delicious LP of lounge-lizard ennui, inspired in part by Ferry's girlfriend Jerry Hall, draws upon Roxy's arty roots even as it anticipates the more rarefied atmospheres of Avalon.
Jefferson Airplane, ‘Volunteers’
RCA Victor, 1969
Guitarist Jorma Kaukonen called Paul Kantner's revolutionary cheerleading "naive," but that didn't prevent the band from delivering this album with sweeping fervor. Also here: the gorgeous "Wooden Ships" and "Eskimo Blue Day," where Grace Slick sings, "The human name doesn't mean shit to a tree."
The Police, ‘Reggatta de Blanc’
The Police may have been lumped in with U.K. punk, but Sting said the mission was always to "sell great music to masses of people." They did that with Reggatta, an album best known for "Message in a Bottle" but distinguished by the mutant reggae of "The Bed's Too Big Without You" and "Walking on the Moon."
Arctic Monkeys, ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’
Domino USA, 2006
Scrappy, lager-fueled tunes about being young and bored in a bleak Northern England steel town. Even Yanks couldn't resist these raging Brit-pop-punk gems.
Mott the Hoople, ‘Mott’
David Bowie‘s “All The Young Dudes” had revived Mott‘s career, but Ian Hunter “wanted people to know that David didn’t create this band.” Producing themselves, they weathered skepticism and studio fistfights to record this examination of rock as “a loser’s game.” Mott became their greatest success. Listen here.
The Smiths, ‘Louder Than Bombs’
Sire/Rough Trade, 1987
Designed to whet U.S. interest while the Smiths completed a new LP, this dazzling assortment of singles and album tracks became an unintended epitaph when the group dissolved. Its best songs are here, from "Sheila Take a Bow" to "Panic."
The Eagles, ‘The Eagles’
This debut created a new template for laid-back L.A. country rock. Behind the band's mellow message – "Take It Easy," "Peaceful Easy Feeling" – was a relentless drive. "Everybody had to look good, sing good, play good and write good," Glenn Frey told Cameron Crowe in Rolling Stone.
Madonna, ‘Ray of Light’
Maverick/Warner Bros., 1998
For her first disc as a mother, Madonna and producer William Orbit showed the world that electronica doesn't have to be cold. Songs like the title track and "Nothing Really Matters" are filled with warmth and wonder. Ray also features her best singing ever.
Johnny Cash, ‘American Recordings’
After years of neglect from the country establishment, Cash returned with this stark acoustic album produced by Rick Rubin. It was a reminder that a giant still walked among us.
Rage Against the Machine, ‘Rage Against the Machine’
Epic Associated, 1992
Singer Zack de la Rocha's radical politics found sympathetic muscle in Tom Morello's howling one-guitar army, making a furor unheard since the MC5 and the Clash.
The Doors, ‘L.A. Woman’
Jim Morrison said the Doors wanted to "get back to what we did originally: just be very primitive… very relaxed." Recorded in their rehearsal space with Morrison's mic set up in the bathroom, this was a bluesier, confident Doors. It was the last album Morrison recorded. He died soon after.
New Order, ‘Substance’
This assemblage of 12-inch singles and remixes charts New Order's tranformation from gloom rockers to electro-disco pioneers. Club hits like "Blue Monday" and "Bizarre Love Triangle" are full of bass melodies that beat-loving guitar bands are still trying to figure out.
The Smashing Pumpkins, ‘Siamese Dream’
On their second disc, the Pumpkins pushed further from alt-rock to a grander, orchestrated sound with multiple guitar parts, strings and Mellotron. Siamese Dream is packed with hits ("Cherup Rock," "Today") and alt-rock followed its lead.
"We call it slumadelic," said Big Boi of OutKast's far-reaching blend of hip-hop, funk, rock and otherworldly sounds. "Ms. Jackson" was something new for rap: an apology to the mother of an ex-girlfriend. And "B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)" twitches to techno beats and screeching guitar.
Buzzcocks, ‘Singles Going Steady’
Singles collects eight British 45s into a perfect punk album. This Manchester group took the sound of the Ramones and made it jittery and even faster. Songs such as "Everybody's Happy Nowadays" define a world of permanently frustrated desire.
Elton John, ‘Honky Chateau’
After a couple of weightier singer-songwriter outings, it was delightful to hear John revel in the simple pop pleasures of "Honky Cat." Written in five days, and using his signature touring band for the first time, Honky Château is a snapshot of an artist loosening up and coming into his full powers.
Miles Davis, ‘Sketches of Spain’
This collaboration between Davis and arranger Gil Evans took 15 orchestral sessions to record and six months to assemble. It wasn't an attempt to play Spanish music but to suggest it; the album's muted beauty contains enormous passion. But is it jazz? Davis responded, "It's music, and I like it."
The Rolling Stones, ‘Between the Buttons’
Andrew Loog Oldham called it their "most English" album. Music-hall piano abuts the psych-soul of "Ruby Tuesday"; the lovely "She Smiled Sweetly" offsets the great Chuck Berry rip, "Miss Amanda Jones."
Randy Newman, ’12 Songs’
Newman's second disc was his artistic breakout, with Ry Cooder and a few of the Byrds contributing to the loose, confident sound. It's prime caustic, funny Newman – especially the piano rockers "Mama Told Me (Not to Come)" and "Have You Seen My Baby?" and the tormented "Suzanne."
The Yardbirds, ‘Having a Rave Up With the Yardbirds’
Freed from Eric Clapton's blues purism and spurred by Jeff Beck's reckless exhibitionism, the Yardbirds launched a noisy rock & roll avant-garde. This is the bridge between beat groups and psychedelia.
Billy Joel, ’52nd Street’
The heavy roadwork dictated by the success of The Stranger produced a leaner, rock-oriented follow-up. Like Elton John, Joel assimilated whatever styles (jazz, Latin rhythms) suited his purpose. "I don't want to limit my diet," he said, "sampling only one vegetable in the garden."
Kanye West, ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’
Def Jam/Roc-A-Fella, 2010
Epic hip-hop as messily inspired as Kanye's life, with Elton John pianos, vocoder freakouts, Bon Iver cameos and hilarious insights on Kanye's self-torpedoing genius.
Dire Straits, ‘Brothers in Arms’
Warner Bros., 1985
Mark Knopfler started writing "Money for Nothing" when he overheard a New York appliance salesman's anti-rock-star, anti-MTV rant. The song, of course, became a huge MTV hit, and this album shows off Knopfler's incisive songwriting and lush guitar riffs on "Walk of Life" and "So Far Away."
Neil Young and Crazy Horse, ‘Rust Never Sleeps’
This live Rust is essential Young, full of delicate acoustic songs and ragged Crazy Horse rampages. Highlights: "My My, Hey Hey" (a tribute to Johnny Rotten) and "Powderfinger," where Young's guitar hits the sky like never before.
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