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
Black Sabbath, ‘Master of Reality’
Warner Bros., 1971
The greatest sludge-metal band of them all in its prime. Paranoid may have bigger hits, but Master of Reality, released a mere six months later, is heavier. The highlight is "Sweet Leaf," a droning love song to marijuana. But the vibe is perfectly summed up by the final track, "Into the Void."
Kanye West, ‘The College Dropout’
On his debut, the self-proclaimed "first [rapper] with a Benz and a backpack" beat the producer-tries-to-rap jinx and broke boundaries others wouldn't acknowledge – from the gospel riot "Jesus Walks" to the Luther Vandross tribute "Slow Jamz."
The Mothers of Invention, ‘We’re Only in It for the Money’
A milestone of studio mischief and a merciless satire of anything that pissed Frank Zappa off in flower power's heyday – drippy hippies, the Establishment, whatever.
The Smiths, ‘Meat Is Murder’
Inspired by Can riffs and bookended by lengthy, brutal songs about corporal punishment and the horrors of the cattle industry, Murder is the darkest entry in the U.K. group's catalog. On "How Soon Is Now?" Morrissey sums up with great pathos and hilarity what a drag it is to be shy. More pathos would come.
Leonard Cohen, ‘Songs of Love and Hate’
The Montreal poet-turned-songwriter's most intense album. Cohen strums an acoustic guitar and murmurs about the destructive powers of love, and his tender croak of a voice gives every song an air of hushed drama.
MC5, ‘Kick Out the Jams’
It's the ultimate rock salute: "Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!" Recorded live in Detroit by Rob Tyner and his anarchist crew, Kick Out the Jams writhes and hollers with the belief in rock & roll as civil disobedience. The proof: It was banned by a Michigan department store.
The Velvet Underground, ‘White Light/White Heat’
Drowning their songs in guitar fuzz and drone, VU made the most extreme disc in their extreme catalog. "Sister Ray" is 17 minutes of amplifiers screaming.
Bob Dylan and the Band, ‘The Basement Tapes’
A folk-rock free-for-all recorded in 1967 at the Band's house near Woodstock, New York. The much-bootlegged sessions were finally released eight years later.
Talking Heads, ‘Talking Heads: 77’
The Heads wore button-down shirts and embraced a tightly wound normality as rebellion. "For a long time, I felt, 'Well, fuck everybody,'" David Byrne told Punk magazine in 1976. "Well, now I want to be accepted." The result was the tense, ingeniously constricted sound of their debut – geek-chic with hooks and charm.
Al Green, ‘Call Me’
By the time they recorded the graceful, almost perfectly rendered Call Me, Green and producer Willie Mitchell could do little wrong. To hammer that home, Green showed he could rival Ray Charles as an interpreter of country songs on the killer downtempo cover of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."
The Kinks, ‘Something Else by the Kinks’
The Kinks' most tuneful, reflective album is anchored by two of their greatest songs: "Waterloo Sunset" and "Death of a Clown." The album tanked in the U.S., but it set the table for their pastoral masterpiece, The Village Green Preservation Society.
Grateful Dead, ‘Anthem of the Sun’
Warner Bros., 1968
The Dead's second album was built from multiple live performances and studio takes, which were faded in and out of each track to re-create the alchemy of the band's shows. Jerry Garcia said, "We really mixed [the album] for the hallucinations, you know?"
X, ‘Los Angeles’
The quintessential L.A. punk band made the first great West Coast punk album with its debut. Los Angeles is best known for its city-defining anthem and the torrid "Johnny Hit and Run Paulene." Produced by Ray Manzarek of the Doors, it also proved that punk and classic rock could hang out together.
Al Green, ‘I’m Still in Love With You’
After topping the charts with Let's Stay Together, Green released his second LP of 1972 – an even more sensual experience. "Love and Happiness" is a slow-building masterpiece: His band puts down a subtle groove, and Green adds a mountain of soul.
Stevie Wonder, ‘Music of My Mind’
Recording after an onerous contract with Motown had expired, a newly empowered Wonder flexed his artistic control, making a relaxed, love-smitten warm-up for the blockbusters to come and playing nearly every funky note on classics such as "Love Having You Around."
The Cars, ‘The Cars’
"We used to joke that the first album should be called The Cars' Greatest Hits," said guitarist Elliot Easton. Their debut was arty and punchy enough to be part of Boston's New Wave scene, yet so catchy that nearly every track ("Good Times Roll," "My Best Friend's Girl") landed on the radio.
Barry White, ‘Can’t Get Enough’
20th Century, 1974
In 1974, White had three albums on the charts simultaneously, all containing orchestrated hits that fanned the flames of disco fever. But the newly married maestro was also a master balladeer, and "I Can't Believe You Love Me" keeps the boudoir drama coming for 10-plus minutes.
Muddy Waters, ‘Folk Singer’
Worried that the folk-music fad was luring listeners away from the blues, Chess Records directed Waters to record with acoustic instruments. These sessions – by Waters, Willie Dixon and a young Buddy Guy – went astonishingly well, and this pioneering "unplugged" set is beloved by blues and folk fans alike.
Mary J. Blige, ‘My Life’
Graced by soulful samples and revisions of classic R&B, this Puff Daddy-helmed second album is Blige's most autobiographical. Upbeat jams like "Be Happy" were created during her struggle with substance abuse and a tumultuous relationship. "There's a real bad suicide spirit on there," she admitted.
U2, ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’
David Bowie, ‘Aladdin Sane’
"I think Aladdin was much more in the area of 'Ziggy goes to America,'" Bowie remarked of the Ziggy sequel written largely during his first extensive U.S. tour. "Time" bridges the two albums, but "The Jean Genie" and a raunchy cover of "Let's Spend the Night Together" show a louder, harder, sexier Bowie.
Harry Smith, Ed., ‘Anthology of American Folk Music’
This influential compilation inspired folkies like Pete Seeger and the early Bob Dylan, and it rekindled interest in the blues. Jerry Garcia cut his turntable speed in half in order to master the solos.
Janet Jackson, ‘Rhythm Nation 1814’
Jackson bought a military suit and ruled the radio for two years with this album. Along with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, she fashions a grand pop statement with hip-hop funk, slow jams and even hair metal.
Parliament, ‘Mothership Connection’
George Clinton leads his Detroit crew of extraterrestrial brothers through a visionary album of science-fiction funk on jams such as "Supergroovalisticprosifunkstication" and "Give Up the Funk."
Eminem, ‘The Slim Shady LP’
"Lady Marmalade" has one of the funkiest chants in Seventies disco: "Hey, sister, go sister, soul sister, go sister!" Nobody did the disco girl-group thing quite like the ladies of Labelle: They were Funkadelic-meets-the-Supremes, complete with platform heels, silver-lamé spacesuits and songs about New Orleans prostitutes.
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, ‘Going to a Go-Go’
Motown at its most debonair and sexy. Robinson works his sweeping soul falsetto over unbelievably sad ballads, including "The Tracks of My Tears" and "Ooh Baby Baby," as the Miracles sob along.
Sleater-Kinney, ‘Dig Me Out’
Kill Rock Stars, 1997
When drummer Janet Weiss joined singer-guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein on the group's third LP, a riot-grrrl force of nature became one of the world's most potent rock bands. Tucker's indelible vibrato takes off with avenging-angel feminine ferocity.
The Beach Boys, ‘The Beach Boys Today!’
The Beach Boys were still into cars, girls and surfboards, but Brian Wilson was already a genius. He writes sweet California tunes here, and the haunting "She Knows Me Too Well" hits Pet Sounds-deep.
The Rolling Stones, ‘Some Girls’
Rolling Stones, 1978
"Keith fuckin' gets busted every year," Mick Jagger fumed. Keith Richards was in drug hell, and the Stones were verging on destruction, but they bounced back with "Miss You," the sleazy "Shattered" and "When the Whip Comes Down." Richards does his best song, "Before They Make Me Run."
The Jesus and Mary Chain, ‘Psychocandy’
Pretty Scottish boys surfing a wave of doom and gloom and enjoying every moment of it. The Jesus and Mary Chain's debut is a decadent alt-rock masterpiece of bubblegum pop – with "Just Like Honey," "My Little Underground" and "Never Understand" – drowned in feedback.
Paul Simon, ‘Paul Simon’
Simon's first album after the breakup of Simon and Garfunkel was a tour de force of songcraft, storytelling, virtuosic guitar picking and upper-register vocal dazzle. It also forecast the fluid internationalism of Graceland with the reggae of "Mother and Child Reunion" and the samba-inflected "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard."
The Who, ‘Quadrophenia’
The album that brought back Vespa scooters, parkas and uppers: Pete Townshend drew on the Who's roots in the London mod scene of the early Sixties and composed this expansive, messy rock opera about a lonely teenage boy looking for love in the city. It gets even better when you check out the movie.
Blood, Sweat and Tears, ‘Child Is Father to the Man’
Organist Al Kooper formed this eclectic rock-jazz collective, putting horns up front with the guitars. On Tim Buckley and Randy Newman covers, and the hard-bitten original "I Can't Quit Her," it worked.
Ray Charles, ‘The Genius of Ray Charles’
Charles spent the Fifties working hard to pioneer his own sound: fusing jazz, gospel and the blues into the new soul style that reshaped American music. But on Genius he relaxes for some easy-swinging pop, with big-band arrangements.
Grateful Dead, ‘Workingman’s Dead’
Tracy Chapman, ‘Tracy Chapman’
Somehow, this young folk singer caught everyone's ear in the hair-metal late Eighties. Chapman had spent time strumming her acoustic guitar for spare change on the streets around Boston, and her gritty voice and storytelling made "Fast Car" hit home.
Crosby, Stills and Nash, ‘Crosby, Stills and Nash’
Jimi Hendrix called CSN "groovy, Western-sky music." The trio first combined their golden-hippie harmonies on this debut, featuring "Marrakesh Express" and the seven-minute "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes."
Grateful Dead, ‘American Beauty’
Warner Bros., 1970
The Dead were never better in the studio than on the down-home stoner country of American Beauty. Released just six months after the folky classic Workingman's Dead [see No. 264], it has some of the band's most beloved songs, including "Box of Rain" and "Friend of the Devil."
Willie Nelson, ‘Stardust’
Stardust is Nelson's love song to old-time American music: At the height of his country popularity, the crooner digs up his favorite Tin Pan Alley standards – "Georgia on My Mind," "Unchained Melody," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" – making yesterday's hits swing as if he had just come up with them in his La-Z-Boy.
Janet Jackson, ‘The Velvet Rope’
Janet Jackson left behind her girl-next-door image forever with The Velvet Rope, an album of sexy, confessional, freewheeling hip-hop soul. She pairs Joni Mitchell and Q-Tip in "Got 'Til It's Gone" and does house music on "Together Again," but the shocker is her girl-girl version of Rod Stewart's "Tonight's the Night."
The Kinks, ‘The Village Green Preservation Society’
Having shed their early garage-rock grit in favor of more baroque arrangements, the Kinks made one of their loveliest albums, Ray Davies' nostalgic ode to British pastoral life. The sound is delicate, like a picture of a small town vanishing before your eyes.
Whitney Houston, ‘Whitney Houston’
She had been a model and a nightclub singer when she cut this smooth R&B debut. Her vocal gifts and technique are astounding; even slick tracks such as "Greatest Love of All" stick. Best song: "How Will I Know," perky synth funk evoking Houston's family friend Aretha Franklin.
Kraftwerk, ‘Trans-Europe Express’
This German group's robotic synthesizer grooves influenced electro-disco hitmakers, experimentalists such as Brian Eno and rappers including Afrika Bambaataa, who lifted the title track for "Planet Rock."
One of the bestselling metal albums ever, created with Bon Jovi producer Bob Rock and led by "Enter Sandman" and the ballad "Nothing Else Matters." "It's scary to look out and see couples hugging during that song," frontman James Hetfield said. "'Oh, fuck, I thought this was a Metallica show.'"
Otis Redding, ‘Dictionary of Soul’
Bruce Springsteen, ‘The River’
Springsteen said it took him five albums to begin writing about real relationships, "people tryin' to find some sort of consolation in each other." The River balances those stories with E Street romps through bar-band R&B, rockabilly and epic rock.
Jay-Z, ‘The Blueprint’
If Frank Sinatra had been born a Brooklyn rapper, The Blueprint is the album he would have made. It's all flash and bravado, with Jay-Z dissing rivals, talking smack about his troubles with the cops and flossing hard with ladies all around the world.
David Bowie, ‘Low’
Moving to West Berlin to kick cocaine, Bowie hooked up with producer Brian Eno. Low was the first of the trilogy of albums they made, full of electronic instrumentals and quirky funk like "Sound and Vision." During this time, Bowie also produced Iggy Pop's Lust for Life and The Idiot, the high point of Iggy's solo career.