It was a good try in 2003, but now it’s a farce.
Rolling Stone magazine just released its updated “500 Greatest Albums” list. They originally published the list in 2003, and had slightly updated it in 2012. This time, they blew it up.
The wild movement of albums proved there is no such thing as a definitive list of the best albums. Let’s look at the Top 10 of 2003/2012 compared with the new Top 10.
2003/2012: (New rank in parenthesis)
- Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band…The Beatles (#24, dropped 23!)
- Pet Sounds…The Beach Boys (#2)
- Revolver…The Beatles (#11)
- Highway 61 Revisited…Bob Dylan (#16)
- Rubber Soul…The Beatles (#35, dropped 30!)
- What’s Going On…Marvin Gaye (#1)
- Exile On Main St….The Rolling Stones (#14)
- London Calling…The Clash (#16)
- Blonde On Blonde…Bob Dylan (#38, dropped 29!)
- The Beatles (White Album)…The Beatles (#29, dropped 19!)
2020: (Former rank in parenthesis)
- What’s Going On…Marvin Gaye (#6)
- Pet Sounds…The Beach Boys (#2)
- Blue…Joni Mitchell (#30, up 27!)
- Songs In The Key Of Life…Stevie Wonder (#56, up 52!)
- Abbey Road…The Beatles (#14)
- Nevermind…Nirvana (#17)
- Rumours…Fleetwood Mac (#25)
- Purple Rain…Prince (#72, up 64!)
- Blood On The Tracks…Bob Dylan (#16)
- The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill…Lauryn Hill (#312, up 302!)
The original 2003 ranking at least seemed to reflect the thinking over the decades, because The Beatles’ albums, along with the Pet Sounds album, were so highly regarded. I could go along with ranking Sgt. Pepper #1, Revolver #3, and Rubber Soul #5, in that order, even though I sometimes change my mind about which is best. I disagreed with some of the order of rankings for albums I knew in the old Top 500, and of course there were some genres and albums I knew nothing about.
The original 2003 list was sometimes criticized for being dominated by white artists. Of the Top 50 then, 24% of the albums were by black artists (blacks make up 13% of the population). The real slight was women. There were only 3 women in the Top 50 (women make up 51% of the population). The new 2020 Top 50 has about 50% black artists, but still only 7 women are ranked (14%). Okay, so using percentages will never work out.
What about common sense? I love Pet Sounds, which I bought when it was released in 1966. It’s well known that Brian Wilson was inspired to make Pet Sounds when he heard the quality of Rubber Soul. In turn, The Beatles loved Pet Sounds and were inspired to get even more creative with Sgt. Pepper. Brian had been working on his follow-up album, Smile, but when he heard Sgt. Pepper, he knew it had passed Pet Sounds, and exceeded what he thought he could do with Smile, so he backed away from music at that time. The world had already lived with Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds for decades when they were ranked #1 & #2 in 2003/2012, but now, we’re expected to believe that a mere 8 years later, Pet Sounds is still #2, but Sgt. Pepper is only the 24th best album. It makes no sense!
It’s impossible to understand how in the world an album previously at 312 could now magically be better than 302 other albums and be ranked 10th. What they’re really saying is that the album by Lauryn Hill is better than Sgt. Pepper, Revolver, Rubber Soul, and better than all of the albums by Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Eagles, James Taylor, Carole King, Tom Petty, The Rolling Stones, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Elton John, CCR, Billy Joel, R.E.M. and so many more!
There are other similar big jumps and big drops that defy logic. Over half of the albums were moved by 50 places or more. Of those, 90 albums moved over 200 places, and 22 of those moved over 300 places! The list has no continuity and no credibility.
It was good to see Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours move into the Top 10. It may have been moved up 18 spots, because it was a way to get another two females there, but it deserves the ranking. The Eagles’ Hotel California should have been right next to it, but it was dropped 81 places to 118th. These two albums both came out in 1977. Rumours edged out Hotel California for the Album Of The Year Grammy, but The Eagles’ album edged out Fleetwood Mac with the public. It became the 3rd best-selling album of all time. The point is, historically, these two albums should be ranked very close to each other. Any list that puts them 111 places apart has failed history. By the way, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon was only at #55. That’s a Top 10 album.
Looking at the full list of 500 albums, it’s obvious no one could be intimately familiar with all of them. Also, it’s hard to compare art that is so wide-ranging in styles. There’s no real comparison between a 2015 Hip-Hop (Rap) album, and a 1967 Rock album. Someone who’s a Rock expert or a Rock artist should not be ranking Hip-Hop, and vice versa. Trying to find even one expert in all forms and decades of music is like looking for a unicorn.
Here’s a solution. Rolling Stone could still call it the 500 Greatest Albums, but divide the 500 into multiple lists based on genres of music, or maybe by decades.
Each of us can make our own “Best Albums” list, based on the albums we know and love. It’s the only album list that really counts.