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Five Reasons to Appreciate Rolling Stone’s New Top 500 Albums

A long overdue overhaul that better reflects who we are and who we want to be as a society

Marvin Gaye 1
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    Music, Movies & Moods is a regular free-form column in which Matt Melis explores the cracks between where art and daily life meet. Today, he delves into the new-and-improved RS500 and what it says about all of us.

    Good on Rolling Stone.

    It’s not every day I get to type that — especially about another pop-culture publication. But kudos are genuinely due. The music industry, blogosphere (is that still a thing?), and social media buzzed yesterday as Rolling Stone unveiled a significantly overhauled and updated version of their famous (and, depending upon who you ask, infamous) list of the Top 500 Albums of All Time. The list, originally unveiled in 2003, was last adjusted in 2012.

    Music, Movies & Moods with Matt MelisIt’s nerd news, yes, but the list — if only because it has been the most famous and accessible of its kind — has been as much an authority and tome as anything else over the last two decades on what’s essential when it comes to popular music albums. Like Modern Library’s list of greatest novels or the American Film Institute’s ranking of the best films have acted as resources for literature and cinema, respectively, the RS500 has been where music listeners new and old have turned both to begin discovering music for themselves and to go back and listen to the records they neglected — or never learned about — the first time around.

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    Of course, the changes have found supporters, detractors, and the types of complaints that come with any attempt to create a comprehensive list. Admittedly, I look at the new Top 50 of the RS500, and I can’t begin to figure out quite how all this got sorted and shook out the way that it did. But what matters more is that something — actually, several things — feel right about the effort as I scroll through the new list. Agree or not with all the changes, here are five reasons to throw some appreciation to those behind the new RS500.

    01. Inclusion

    Our county is undergoing a transformation. Whether it be the battle royale that American politics has become, the Me Too movement that has put the entertainment industry (and all of society) on notice in recent years, or the Black Lives Matter protests that have taken to the streets all summer with no end in sight, our society is in the midst of several struggles that will determine what our collective future looks like. That change may seem like it’s happening around us (even apart from us), but it’s also become incumbent upon all of us to examine our own small spheres — even something that seems as trivial as an album ranking in a music publication. If we who run these publications and make the lists truly believe, for example, that women’s voices need heard, that Black lives do matter, and that our LGBTQ+ friends deserve to be represented, then how can we continue to neglect the art that gives a voice to women, depicts the Black experience, and makes room for all colors of the rainbow to be counted? While the push for representation and inclusion in coverage never ends, the new RS500 reflects a significant increase in albums made by artists previously left out on the margins.

    What's Going On

    02. Canons Change

    As a part-time literature professor who has both been assigned and assigned plenty of books by dead, white dudes, I can attest to how long it takes change to occur and new art to gain a foothold … but it does happen. Part of the job of any arts canon — like the RS500 — should be to shift to reflect the times and direct its subscribers to new and exciting art to seek out. Rolling Stone’s first list came out in 2003. Its first set of tweaks in 2012. In what ways — whether it be the music industry or the world around us — does 2020 look anything like two decades ago? By daring to change, the RS500 not only maintains its relevance as a canon but also nudges musicians, writers, and listeners to branch out and find new art to experience, get inspired by, and create dialogues around. As for some of the timeless albums that got the bump or chop, those records will be just fine, and exploring new music will only send more and more listeners tracing back sounds and styles and themes to those seminal works.

    Joni Mitchell - Blue

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    03. More Music Is a Good Thing

    One thing all music lovers should appreciate is that the new list includes more artists. While some lads might be upset to see, say, The Beatles no longer accounting for 40% of the top 10, swapping and dropping some of those albums made room for inclusions near the top by the likes of Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Prince, and Lauryn Hill. Consequently, that’ll lead to more people seeking out music by those artists, listening across different genres, and checking out those who influenced them and have since been inspired by them. Don’t worry: Sgt. Pepper’s will be okay. Music seekers just have more paths to go down and explore; in music, that’s a good thing.

    The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

    04. The Purpose of Criticism Has Changed

    I get that there will be some head-scratching about how, say, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On hopped from No. 6 to the top spot. After all, it’s the same record it was in 2003, right? And how did Sgt. Pepper’s go from No. 1 to nearly out of the top 25? I’m not going to try to explain all these changes, but I’m sure that I can make an argument about Gaye’s masterpiece about a Vietnam vet returning home to witness hatred, oppression, and injustice being pretty damn relevant right now. Just like I could say that music that sounds like Lauryn Hill’s or Kendrick Lamar’s is selling and streaming a lot more than music that sounds like The Beatles’ brand of pop. Criticism once had the responsibility to separate the cream from the rest of the crop, but that seems less and less our primary role. At best, we’re curating — that is, helping listeners wade through that sea of infinite choices towards their likes and away from dislikes. Then again, algorithms can do that. What we can do, then, is spend less time debating what’s better and more time focused on the art itself, providing context, making connections, and reflecting on how that art relates to the changing world around it. If we do our job well, we do more service to that album than a high ranking ever could. In other words, let’s not worry as much about where What’s Going On appears and more about what’s going on with What’s Going On in 2020.

    kendrick lamar to pimp a butterfly vinyl release

    05. Precedent

    Nobody made Rolling Stone change their list, but now that they have, that sets a precedent. One where we’d hope that future editors and contributors will plan to keep adapting the RS500 to reflect the times, values, and makeup of our society. If that’s the case, then five or ten years from now, we can expect a living and breathing resource like this one to not only remind us where we’ve been and where we are as a society that values music and art, but also to hopefully nudge us towards where we aim to go next.

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    Not bad for a silly ranking.

    Check out the Top 50 as they appear today and in 2003 below. You can find the new Rolling Stone Top 500 here, and compare it to the Top 500 from 2003 here.

    Rolling Stone Top 50 Albums of All Time (2020):

    01. Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On
    02. The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds
    03. Joni Mitchell – Blue
    04. Stevie Wonder – Songs in the Key of Life
    05. The Beatles – Abbey Road
    06. Nirvana – Nevermind
    07. Fleetwood Mac – Rumours
    08. Prince and the Revolution – Purple Rain
    09. Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks
    10. Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
    11. The Beatles – Revolver
    12. Michael Jackson – Thriller
    13. Aretha Franklin – I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You
    14. The Rolling Stones – Exile on Main Street
    15. Public Enemy – It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
    16. The Clash – London Calling
    17. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
    18. Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited
    19. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
    20. Radiohead – Kid A
    21. Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run
    22. The Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die
    23. The Velvet Underground & Nico – The Velvet Underground
    24. The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
    25. Carole King – Tapestry
    26. Patti Smith – Horses
    27. Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
    28. D’Angelo – Voodoo
    29. The Beatles – The White Album
    30. The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Are You Experienced?
    31. Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
    32. Beyoncé – Lemonade
    33. Amy Winehouse – Back to Black
    34. Stevie Wonder – Innervisions
    35. The Beatles – Rubber Soul
    36. Michael Jackson – Off the Wall
    37. Dr. Dre – The Chronic
    38. Bob Dylan – Blonde on Blonde
    39. Talking Heads – Remain in Light
    40. David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and Spiders From Mars
    41. The Rolling Stones – Let It Bleed
    42. Radiohead – OK Computer
    43. A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory
    44. Nas – Illmatic
    45. Prince – Sign O’ the Times
    46. Paul Simon – Graceland
    47. Ramones – Ramones
    48. Bob Marley and the Wailers – Legend
    49. OutKast – Aquemini
    50. Jay-Z – The Blueprint

    Rolling Stone Top 50 Albums of All Time (2003):

    01. The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
    02. The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds
    03. The Beatles – Revolver
    04. Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited
    05. The Beatles – Rubber Soul
    06. Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On
    07. The Rolling Stones – Exile on Main Street
    08. The Clash – London Calling
    09. Bob Dylan – Blonde on Blonde
    10. The Beatles – The White Album
    11. Elvis Presley – The Sun Sessions
    12. Miles Davis – Some Kind of Blue
    13. The Velvet Underground & Nico – The Velvet Underground
    14. The Beatles – Abbey Road
    15. The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Are You Experienced?
    16. Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks
    17. Nirvana – Nevermind
    18. Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run
    19. Van Morrison – Astral Weeks
    20. Michael Jackson – Thriller
    21. Chuck Berry – The Great Twenty-Eight
    22. Robert Johnson – The Complete Recordings
    23. John Lennon – Plastic Ono Band
    24. Stevie Wonder – Innervisions
    25. James Brown – Live at the Apollo
    26. Fleetwood Mac – Rumours
    27. U2 – The Joshua Tree
    28. The Who – Who’s Next
    29. Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin
    30. Joni Mitchell – Blue
    31. Bob Dylan – Bringing It All Back Home
    32. The Rolling Stones – Let It Bleed
    33. Ramones – Ramones
    34. The Band – Music From Big Pink
    35. David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and Spiders From Mars
    36. Carole King – Tapestry
    37. The Eagles – Hotel California
    38. Muddy Waters – The Antology
    39. The Beatles – Please Please Me
    40. Love – Forever Changes
    41. Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols
    42. The Doors – The Doors
    43. Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon
    44. Patti Smith – Horses
    45. The Band – The Band
    46. Bob Marley and the Wailers – Legend
    47. John Coltrane – A Love Supreme
    48. Public Enemy – It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
    49. The Allman Brothers Band – At Fillmore East
    50. Little Richard – Little Richard

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