It was a good try in 2003, but the new list is a failure.
Rolling Stone magazine released its updated “500 Greatest Albums” list. They originally published the list in 2003, and in 2012 they updated it slightly. This time, they blew it up.
The wild movement of albums up & down from the previous list proves 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. Only two albums from the old top ten survived in the new one.
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, Pet Sounds #2, Revolver #3, Highway 61 Revisited #4, and Rubber Soul #5. For the rest of the old Top 500, I agreed with some of the order of rankings, and of course there were some genres and albums I knew nothing about.
The 2003 list was sometimes criticized for featuring “too many white guys”. 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 doubled the number of black artists to about 50%, but 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 admired 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. 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 ludicrously 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, 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 many more 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. The shame is that this list will be referenced in articles, and it’s simply an inaccurate revision of history.
Here’s another example. Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours was placed in 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 by becoming the 3rd best-selling album of all time. The point is, from an historical/quality perspective, 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. Rolling Stone had artists submit lists of their choices. 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. Then use appropriate music historians and experts to rank the categories. They should do it soon, and then forget they ever did a 2020 list.
Epilogue: After writing the article, I continued to research how Rolling Stone approached this list. They wanted to downplay the opinions of the writers who originally selected which albums were best in 2003/2012. It was felt they had too much reverence for Classic Rock. That meant adding more black artists and moving them up the list (often by giant leaps). To make room, there was a downward trend of classic (older) albums by white artists. That’s why there was a net loss of 5 of those from the Top 10. They did their best to move female artists into more prominent positions. That’s why Joni Mitchell was moved from 30 to 3, and why Lauryn Hill was moved from 312 to 10. It also explains why the white male rock band Eagles (who have the #1 & #3 best-selling albums of all time) was dropped to 118. It’s a shame they couldn’t have updated the list while still keeping some semblance of reason for the moves.
One of the people selected to submit a list for the project admitted he didn’t even try to actually chose the best albums. He said he wanted to improve the rankings of black artists and women, and didn’t include any Beatles albums, because “others would do that”. People trying strategies to manipulate the list makes it inaccurate.
Rolling Stone accomplished their goal of “inclusion”, and in their opinion “made it more reflective of today”. So, basically they’re saying it’s not the 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time, but rather it’s 500 albums placed in an order more pleasing to today’s younger people. Old Classic Rock albums are mostly important to old Classic Rock fans. They’re a dying breed, and no longer Rolling Stone’s target audience.