Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums: Say Goodnight to the Rock & Roll Era

My Rolling Stone 500 Ballot and why I didn't vote for Beatles, Stones, Dylan, etc.

Back in 1987, Rolling Stone published a series of 20th Anniversary issues, all chronicling highlights of the past two decades—twenty years which just happened to coincide with the peak of the rock & roll era, the time when it moved from the underground into the mainstream. Of these issues, the one with the greatest influence—at least for me, although friends and colleagues of the same demographic assure me they share a similar opinion—is the August 27, 1987 issue compiling the "100 Best Albums of the Last Twenty Years," a de facto guide to pop music history that was much more recent than it seemed at the time. 

Thirty-three years later, Rolling Stone published a new list chronicling the Top 500 Albums of All-Time this September, an update/revision of the 2012 list of the same name which itself was a sequel to the original 2003 list, which was the publication's first attempt at decade-spanning canon-making since 1997's The Rolling Stone 200: The Essential Rock Collection. One of the distinguishing elements of this new list is that this is a critics poll, a feature that distinguishes it from at least the 1987 list, which was assembled by an in-house editorial team.

Rolling Stone asked me to participate in this year's project, a request I accepted without hesitation. I was happy to be part of a project that stretched back to the original 1987 issue that was so important to me as a teenager. As I began to assemble my ballot of 50 albums, I came to the quick realization that my decades of listening, list-making, and reading have drastically changed how I view lists and canons. I no longer think of them as some definitive word being passed down from on high or some definitive historical document but rather a reflection of how the pop music community views the past. 

Looking at the new Rolling Stone list of 500 Greatest Albums, it's striking to see how the times have changed. The most obvious seismic shock is how Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band is no longer the Citizen Kane of pop. It's been dethroned from the top spot, pushed all the way to number 24, with Marvin Gaye's What's Going On taking its slot. What's Going On has been floating in Rolling Stone's Top 10 since 1987, the same year where it made it into the Top Five on The World Critics List masterminded by Paul Gambaccini. In other words, What's Going On has been acknowledged as a consensus classic for decades, so it's not shocking to see it at the top of the list. The shocks arrive within the guts of the poll, where it becomes clear that the rock & roll era has come to an end. 

Sure, there are plenty of rock records on the list, starting with Nirvana's Nevermind at six, but dig a little deeper, it's evident that anything loud, raw, and noisy is on the out of fashion. It's also clear that records released prior to 1970 are drifting toward the history books: they're not platters for pleasure but prerequisites for understanding the modern era. There are some exceptions to the rule but they're often albums by acts that either are marketed into ubiquity (Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin; the kind of band whose shirt is sold at Target) or are exemplars of their genre (Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra, Robert Johnson, etc.). The highest-ranking pre-1970 LP is the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, which long has benefitted its mythos that it was an album too visionary and beautiful for its time (despite the fact that it had two Top Ten hit singles and went into the Billboard Top Ten itself). 

Pet Sounds is also pointedly not a rock & roll record; it's as far from the sound of four or five musicians banging away at a handful of chords in a small room as can be imagined. It's an album born of the studio and, in that sense, it points the way to so many of the key records to come, whether it's Sgt. Pepper, What's Going On, or Rumours. It's an also album whose mystique is inextricably tied to how its the vision of one musician, not a collective, an idea that fuels a lot of modern music--even music made by a team of studio rats and fronted by a singer. Pet Sounds proved prescient on these and several other fronts but it's not quite an album that crystalizes the sound, feel, and aesthetic of the 1960s; indeed, it's often celebrated for how it cut against the grain of the time. 

One thing is clear: Pet Sounds is not part of classic rock culture, the album-oriented radio format, and audience that sustained the sound and style of the late '60s and 1970s into the early years of the 21st Century. Classic rock still has a significant presence in the 2020 list but classic rock dominated every previous incarnation of the Rolling Stone Greatest Albums lists, especially if its umbrella widens to include such '70s icons as Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon—singer/songwriters who may not feature on current classic rock playlists but certainly were fixtures of album rock in their heyday. The album rock and singer/songwriters of the 1970s grew out of blues-rock, British Invasion pop and folk-rock of the 1960s, the punk, new wave, and college rock of the late '70s and 1980s were equal parts reactions and growth to all these sounds, '90s alternative rock continued and commented upon all of this and all these styles and eras have one thing in common: they've faded as a force on the Rolling Stone list.

Part of this is surely deliberate on the part of both the voters and the editors, who are quite aware of shifting pop landscapes and projects such as NPR's Turning The Tables, which built a classic albums canon around women. But a lot of the change is due to the simple act of time marching forward. Nevermind, the highest-charting rock record (unless Abbey Road counts, which it could), celebrates its thirtieth anniversary next year, the same year the Strokes' Is This It (114) and Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (225) will turn twenty. If you have an expansive definition of rock, one encompassing everything from indie to Americana, it's last robust year was 2013, when Vampire Weekend's Modern Vampires of the City (328), Arctic Monkeys' AM (346), and Jason Isbell's Southeastern (458) all were released. Far from being at the center of culture, rock is in the rearview and receding. 

Looking back at my ballot, I played a part in moving this scenario forward. I believe this is a reflection of the ubiquity of lists over the last decade as well as my awareness of how they work. Some of this knowledge was gained through participation in such polls as Pazz & Jop and The Nashville Scene's Country Music Poll, some of it was gained as a reader, but it all pushed me to the same inclusion: a ballot should be seen as advocacy. Since the end result of critics polls helps establish a canon, it's easy to approach a ballot with the idea that it should be a list assessing influence and importance. That's a perfectly valid approach, one that I followed for years. As I've gotten older, I've veered away from choosing albums for their "importance," coming to believe it's a somewhat nebulous term. I now gravitate toward albums that still seem to offer a complete experience, either as a collection of songs or as a recording. From there, I try to balance styles, genres, and eras, among other representation considerations. I don't like to contain more than one record from an artist, either, otherwise a list an all-time-list runs the risk of being overrun by Elvis, Beatles, and the Rolling Stones.

Even limiting myself to one album apiece from an artist, I felt like my ballot was weighted too heavily toward the usual suspects, so I did something radical (at least for me): I decided not to include the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or Bob Dylan, artists that I love but who have more than their share of support among any group of music critics. I did keep Elvis Presley on my list, under the assumption that he might need a boost, that he might be seen as a historical figure, not somebody whose albums still provide pleasure. I was right on that count. I was also right that the Beatles, Stones, Dylan, and several other icons didn't need my support in order to chart, but I didn't realize that other critics would leave these titans off their ballot, either for reasons of advocacy or taste. Because they did, we have a 500 Greatest Albums List where it's possible to see the times changing. While it may be jarring to see very few titles (or none at all) by Elvis Costello, the Replacements, Cheap Trick, or ZZ Top on this list (not to mention a considerable softening of support for U2), it's fascinating to see tastes shift in real time.

So, here's the ballot I submitted to Rolling Stone this past spring. As with all lists, it's nothing but a snapshot of how I felt at a particular point in time, I would likely swap and resequence if given a chance. This past spring, I was not of the opinion that compilations should be selected unless they were original greatest hits collections—a rule I broke with the selection of The Great Twenty Eight, so who knows if I'd follow it today.

1. Beastie Boys—Paul’s Boutique

2. Elvis Presley—From Elvis in Memphis

3. Steely Dan—Gaucho

4. Waylon Jennings—Honky Tonk Heroes

5. Liz Phair—Exile in Guyville

6. Chuck Berry—The Great Twenty Eight

7. Merle Haggard—Serving 190 Proof

8. Little Feat—Waiting for Columbus

9. Nick Lowe—Jesus of Cool

10. Todd Rundgren—Something/Anything

11. Blur—Parklife

12. Jerry Lee Lewis—Live at the Star Club

13. Prince—Sign o the Times

14. Pretenders—Pretenders

15. Frank Sinatra—Watertown

16. Sir Douglas Quintet—Mendocino

17. The Clash—Give Em Enough Rope

18. Randy Newman—12 Songs

19. Public Enemy—It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back

20. James Brown—Live at the Apollo

21. Rod Stewart—Every Picture Tells A Story

22. The Who—Sell Out

23. Pulp—Different Class

24. Creedence Clearwater Revival—Willy & The Poor Boys

25. Pistol Annies—Hell On Heels

26. Pavement—Wowee Zowee

27. The Kinks—Village Green Preservation Society

28. Television—Marquee Moon

29. REM—Reckoning

30. The Strokes—Is This It

31. Eric Church—Mr. Misunderstood

32. Elastica—Elastica

33. Harry Nilsson—Nilsson Schmilsson

34. ZZ Top—Eliminator

35. Flying Burrito Brothers—Gilded Palace of Sin

36. De La Soul—3 Feet High And Rising

37. Led Zeppelin—Physical Graffiti

38. T Rex—Electric Warrior

39. The Jam—Sound Affects

40. Billy Joel—Glass Houses

41. Mott the Hoople—Mott

42. Magic Sam—West Side Soul

43. Willie Nelson—Shotgun Willie

44. Sonic Youth—Daydream Nation

45. Husker Du—New Day Rising

46. Oasis—Definitely Maybe

47. White Stripes—Elephant

48. Boz Scaggs—Silk Degrees

49. Amy Winehouse—Back To Black

50. Vampire Weekend—Vampire Weekend

While digging out this ballot, I also came across a list of titles that I short-listed but didn't place on my final entry. Some of these I might bump up today, some of these I'm not sure what I was thinking of in the first place. Either way, it's somewhat interesting to look at, so I decided to put it as part of this entry...but these albums aren't placed in preferential order, they're presented alphabetically.

Big Star—Radio City

Dave Edmunds—Repeat When Necessary

The Faces—Five Guys Walk Into A Bar

Peter Gabriel—Peter Gabriel 3 [Melting Face]

Grateful Dead—Workingsmans Dead

Guns N Roses—Appetite for Destruction

BB King—Live at the Regal

Miranda Lambert—The Weight of These Wings

Paul & Linda McCartney—Ram

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers—Damn the Torpedoes

Jimmy Reed—At Carnegie Hall

The Smiths—The Queen Is Dead

Squeeze—Argybargy

The Stone Roses—The Stone Roses

Van Halen—Van Halen

The Velvet Underground—The Velvet Underground & Nico

XTC—Skylarking

Warren Zevon—Warren Zevon