Is the New Rolling Stone Top 500 Albums List Really Improved?
This year, music journalism institution Rolling Stone saw fit to revise their top 500 Albums of All Time List for the second time since its conception in 2003. The first edition of Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Albums of All Time List was problematic from the start. The list originally only had three women in the top fifty, as well as twelve people of color across the entirety of the top 500, zero of whom were women of color. And there was serious genre bias: Rolling Stone has always been biased towards rock music. The publication idolizes artists like the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and Bob Dylan—and it’s clear in every version of the list released. For example, the Beatles had fourteen albums in the top fifty on the original 2003 list, and once the list was amended in 2012 they still held six of the top fifty spots. Even rap, which by 2012 had become the musical zeitgeist, only had one representative in the top fifty with It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back by Public Enemy landing at No. 48. Though the 2012 featured some promising amendments that added diversity, the additions made to the 2020 list have made comparing the two like comparing night and day. The 2020 list is significantly more diverse than the prior lists, but ultimately falls short due to some questionable criteria for albums to be placed on the list, some questionable placements, and a heavy western bias.
So, what does the improved list get right? As previously mentioned, the list now contains more diversity than the 2003 and 2012 editions of the list. In the top fifty, arguably the most decade defining genre of the 2010s, hip hop, has received significantly more recognition. Even more noteworthy is that the most highly rated hip hop project on the list, coming in at No. 10, is by a female rapper of color, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Other noteworthy improvements over the previous lists include the addition of more women, the addition of more women of color, and the higher placements of women on the list. The top fifty now sees the addition of four more women to the list bringing the total number of women to seven (eight if you count Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac and nine if you count Nico of the Velvet Underground and Nico). Joni Mitchell also finds herself now as the most highly ranked woman on the list coming in at No. 3 for her classic album Blue — a more fitting placement than her prior No. 30 ranking. Aside from the inclusion of more women and women of color, the list now sees a man of color at the No. 1 spot with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On moving up from No. 6 on the 2003 list.
Despite these efforts to add greater diversity to the list that better reflects the current music landscape, there nonetheless are problems from the prior iterations of the list that have carried over. My first objection is to their inclusion of compilations and greatest-hits albums. Rolling Stone defended this choice in their prologue: “A well-made compilation can be just as coherent and significant as an LP, because compilations helped shape music history, and because many hugely important artists recorded their best work before the album had arrived as a prominent format.” While I agree that artists like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, or Robert Johnson who are worthy of placement on such a list predate the popularity of the album format and generally released singles, it is not as though artists like them did not have acclaimed records that could have been placed on the list instead of compilations of their work. Additionally, the inclusion of some compilations and not others feels arbitrary when you consider the fact that a compilation of any artist’s all-time best tracks could qualify them for a higher place on the list.
My second objection concerns the continued worship of The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, and The Rolling Stones, with the addition of the likes of Stevie Wonder, Prince, Radiohead, and Kanye West. Despite each of these artists being worthy of multiple placements for their often groundbreaking work, together these artists occupy forty-six spots on the top 500 that could be refined to make room for dozens of other worthy albums.
The last, most notable failure of this revised list is the music industry’s bias for western and English speaking artists. After running through the list a handful of times trying to give Rolling Stone the benefit of the doubt, I counted less than twenty albums by non-Western artists, and only ten albums that were recorded in a language other than English. Nearly all of the foreign language albums that made the list were in Spanish, one of the only exceptions being a compilation — something I have already explained my problem with — of popular music from South Africa titled The Indestructible Beat of Soweto.
Whether you place the blame on the industry consultants or Rolling Stone itself, the lack of foreign music exposes the xenophobia and ignorance that plagues the music industry. To think that there is not a single album from non-English speaking legends like Natalia Lafourcade or Françoise Hardy — each of whom could easily have had an album or two on this list — is upsetting. I did not count a single album from an Asian language speaking artist, prime candidates being Nanda Collection by J-Pop icon Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, Solid State Survivor by YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA, or MAP OF THE SOUL: 7 by BTS. I mean for goodness
sake, if we are following the bogus criteria of this list that allows for compilations, why not put one of the fantastic compilations of either Japanese ambient or City Pop music from the Seattle-based Light In The Attic label?
At the end of the day, is it really all that important what the revised Rolling Stone’s list has decided are the top 500 albums of all time? No and yes. Saying that What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye is the best album of all time is not going to change my own opinion that Madvillainy by Madvillain (which is ranked criminally low at No. 365 in my opinion) is the greatest album ever made. However, the Rolling Stone’s insistence on elevating western music over non-western music could potentially influence the taste of many people for years to come. What should be even more concerning is that this list was made after consulting some of the biggest figures in the music industry, making this list reflective of an underlying xenophobia that exists in all aspects of the music industry and in the realm of music journalism.
The biggest takeaway, if anything, is that while this revision was a step in the right direction to express the greater cultural and ethnic diversity of music in the 21st century, one can’t help but feel as though this list misses the mark. This is largely due to some strange criteria for compilations, some lingering worship for white men that made rock and pop music in the 1960s, and an unintentionally exposed xenophobia and ignorance of foreign music that exists in the music industry and music journalism.
Lammas is the Reviews editor and a sophomore in the College studying Political Economics.