Rolling Stone Revisionist History (The Pros and Cons of the Updated Top 500 Albums List)

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The Rolling Stone’s updated best albums of all time list is certainly a step in the right direction, but with these changes come interesting new precedents.

Recently, perhaps in an attempt to reconcile a long history of white-washing in music journalism, legendary popular music publication Rolling Stone published a reimagining of their iconic “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time List.”

This time it has been updated with more albums from this century, more votes from women and people of color, and a shift of focus from the once rock-centric approach. The result is of drastic difference to the original list published in 2003 (then updated in 2012), most notably boasting 154 albums that weren’t on the first two editions of the list. Rolling Stone also was proud to gather their rankings from over 300 music veterans, this time asking a more diverse crowd than just the old boys of classic rock. With this new list, the long time household name in music journalism aims to more responsibly recount music history, though they seem to forget that they are, in turn, shaping the future of it.

Despite being concise, functional, and accessible, there are some inherent critical issues with the tides of the rankings list and with objective rating based music criticism in general. It’s quite often that readers disagree with critics declaring what’s good and what’s bad, as we’re all fully aware, art is a subjective medium. Issues arise, however, when opinions on music are made particularly explicit with relation to the world of music at large. Take the Pitchfork rating for example, which gives a score out of 10.0, with 100 possible ratings. Look at Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly which received a 9.3, and Frank Ocean’s Blonde, which received a 9. What makes TPAB 3% stronger than Blonde? What 7% is keeping it from a ten? On Pitchfork’s best albums of the 2010’s list, they ranked Blonde the best album of the decade, beating out the higher rated TPAB as well as Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which was actually given the coveted perfect 10. So the Pitchfork list seems to transcend the ratings, despite the objective parameters they set forth. My point is not to discredit Pitchfork, which, to be fair, makes a great effort to conserve music history, but rather to point out how tricky these classifications can become. It certainly makes Anthony Fantano’s “Strong 6 to Light 7” ballpark approach seem more appealing.

But as the Pitchfork dilemma makes clear, the list speaks very boldly. As a matter of fact, it speaks volumes. In bringing a world of music criticism together to compare against itself, the list reaches more objective truths and finality. Despite abandoning numerical ratings (In this case the five star system), lists ultimately say what is better than what, all with indisputable tiers. This makes lists easily palatable for newcomers who want to jump in quickly, but also makes them immensely powerful. This power is why it’s important that we think about and understand this Rolling Stone list, and it’s probably why they updated it.

In the first list, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and Led Zeppelin account for over 10% of the list entirely on their own.

The original list is flawed to say the least, most notably being heavily favored towards white male rock and roll musicians. This should come as no surprise, as Rolling Stone came up as the genre did; they not only watched the scene grow, but they also informed it. The story of Rock and Roll can’t be told without the Rolling Stone, and the story of popular music at large certainly can’t be told without Rock.

The bias is abundantly clear in the first list. There are only 12 artists of color and 3 women in the top 50, with no women of color in the top 50 whatsoever. There’s also only one hip-hop album in the top fifty, placing an inherent disregard towards the genre as a legitimate art form.

More importantly, the albums in question are exactly what you would expect, only bona fide dad classics, with no entries that are particularly controversial or unexpected. Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and Led Zeppelin account for over 10% of the list entirely on their own. This is problematic for a ton of reasons, most notably the lack of marginalized representation, but there’s also something to be said of what this does to the readers. Many can take a look at this list, see the iconic name that published it, and go on thinking that it’s an accurate portrait of music history. The list not only leaves out amazing artists and genres, but also gives reason to believe that classic rock is the holy grail of recorded music. The result is both closed minded and extremely irresponsible. The impact on the collective music canon is undeniable, which is why it’s important that the list was changed.

The 2020 iteration of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time is much more responsible in terms of representation, which inherently rendered a list with some incredible music on it.

Some notable wins for marginalized music are Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On dethroning Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for the number 1 spot, Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation grabbing number 10, Kanye landing 6 albums on the list, and Outkast’s Aquemini jumping from 500 to 49.

While the 2003 edition seemed to include some of these classics out of obligation, these new higher rankings indicate a more genuine appreciation. The updates also put more emphasis on newer music, with 86 albums from this century. There’s moreover a larger effort to rank newer and older music more equally, as there’s far more 80s, 90s, and 2000’s music mixed in with the 60s and 70s classics. It makes more sense to a younger listener like me, who’s heard 45 out of the new top 50 and only 34 of the original top 50.

What immediately alarmed me however, was the willingness to include albums from as late as 2019, something that brings up questions of longevity in the classic album.

Evening Standard

At the risk of sounding contradictory, my first issue with the new list is that I feel that newer albums should be given more time before such prestigious rankings.

While the instant classics like TPAB and Blonde are surely worthy of their placements, there should absolutely be some deeper consideration before placing albums less than a year old. The most glaring flaw I noticed was at the 491 mark, with Harry Styles’ Fine Line that will turn one this December. Recency aside, I was more surprised simply because I find the album to be derivative, uninspired, and generally boring, not to mention the many underwhelming reviews. A similar issue arises with Billie Eilish’s placement, although her effort will most certainly have more lasting influence than the former. A big point of contention comes with Taylor Swift’s Red at 99, probably because of what appears when you scroll up to those low hundred spots: De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, Lou Reed’s Transformer, Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and The Smiths’ The Queen is Dead to name a few. Upon pondering some of these strange placements from recent, and extremely popular mainstream artists, the question arises as to what should merit a spot on this list. As figures like sales or ideas of influence can lend themselves to biases of the past, one would hope that there would be newer emphasis on the music itself. But I can’t help but wonder if Harry Styles, Billie Eilish, and Taylor Swift (at least this high up) are present simply because they are popular for their time, something that’s part of the issue with the first editions. 

“The obsession with popular music has always been here, now, just taking the form of Harry Styles instead of 11 Bob Dylan albums.”

What I’m talking about is an issue that I now believe to be prevalent across all lists, which turns out to be Pop-centrism. This was disguised in 2003 as rock and white centrism, because those two words were synonymous with pop for a long time. The obsession with popular music has always been here, now just taking the form of Harry Styles instead of 11 Bob Dylan albums. The brightside, at least, is that this pop centrism is a lot less racist than it was before; some other undeserving placements include The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness (arguably his worst album ever) and Drake’s Take Care ranking even higher than T-Swift. So although there have been improvements along the way, it’s abundantly clear that for Rolling Stone’s memory of music history, some things never change.

Courtesy of Grammy.com

 This furthermore leads me to question my idea of music history as a whole. Are these 60s and 70s classics the true maverick, counter cultural standouts that we’ve been told? Or are these radio hits for theater kids? Would I have loved the Smiths when they came out? More importantly, will some kid see this list in 30 years and use the information to choose Red by Taylor Swift? Surely my children will not be raised to believe that Drake’s Take Care is better than the entire Pixies catalogue, but there’s something to be said for the effect that this list will have on the musical canon of the future, even if far less racist. I certainly prefer pop-centrism to racism, but both are detrimental to music in their own right. What matters is that, while these lists are surely fun to browse and discuss, we don’t give power to these institutions that are clearly informed by profit.

A deeper focus on the music and what makes it important will always allow the cream to rise to the top.