Maybe I’m wrong, but who’s to say what’s right?

It will come as no surprise to many of my readers that I love lists. I love reading them, and I love making them. Not so much the “To-do” lists and the grocery lists, but the “Best Movies” lists, and the “Best Quarterbacks” lists and the “Best Novels” lists. They’re fun to debate about.

The archives of “Hack’s Back Pages” are riddled with lists of all kinds. Nearly every blog post comes with a playlist of songs that refer to the theme being explored: best songs about driving, best female vocalists, best songs about fathers, best rock biographies, best songs by Little Richard, best drummers, the worst cringeworthy songs, and on and on.

Music magazines, and even some mainstream newspapers, like to publish their staff writers’ opinions about the best songs and albums of a given year or decade. Rolling Stone, long regarded as the granddaddy of rock music publications, took on the fairly overwhelming (some might say foolhardy) challenge of selecting the Best 500 Albums of All Time. They first did this in 2003, and now they’ve come up with a new list in 2020.

How to go about such a monumental task? In 2003, the magazine approached nearly 300 luminaries of the music business: recording artists, songwriters, label executives, session musicians, music critics, producers, managers and historians. They were each asked to name their top 50 albums, and were told to be true to their own tastes, choosing the best albums they’d ever heard as well as the ones that meant the most to them personally or professionally.

They did the same thing again this year, asking a different, more current group of music biz VIPs to complete the same exercise. Older artists and execs were still consulted, but the net was cast wider to include important new players who weren’t around or involved when the first list was compiled.

I find it thoroughly fascinating to review these two lists side by side to see how much preferences have changed in the 17 years between their publication.

It stands to reason that there are nearly 100 albums listed in the Top 500 in 2020 that hadn’t yet been released in 2003.

It also makes sense that a newer generation of electors would embrace newer genres far more widely than the earlier group did. Hip-hop, born in the early 1980s, isn’t exactly new, but as a genre it is much more widely represented, and ranked higher, on the 2020 list than the 2003 list.

What I find especially intriguing is how some albums that have long been named near the top of many “best of” lists fell out of favor, sometimes dramatically so, among the new list’s voters. In 2003, no less than FOUR albums by The Beatles were in the Top 10 (“Sgt. Pepper” at #1, “Revolver at #3, #Rubber Soul” at #5 and “The White Album” at #10). This year, none of these were in the Top 10 (“Sgt. Pepper” fell to #24 and “Rubber Soul” tumbled to #35), but “Abbey Road” leapfrogged all four to come in at #5.

Other longtime classics met brutal fates on the new list. The Eagles’ “Hotel California” dropped from #37 to #118. U2’s “The Joshua Tree” plummeted from #26 to #135. Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home” was demoted from #31 to #181. Elvis’s self-titled major-label debut fell off a cliff from #55 to #332. The Stones’ “Beggar’s Banquet” dropped from #57 to #185. John Lennon’s “Imagine” went from #76 to #223. Led Zeppelin’s debut LP dove from #29 to #101.

Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” #19

While it wasn’t necessarily a direct cause-and-effect change, these time-tested masterpieces had to make room for newer works, at least in the eyes of the new group of electors. Albums by Kanye West (“My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”), Kendrick Lamar (“To Pimp a Butterfly”) and Public Enemy (“It Takes a Nation to Hold Us Back”) all made the Top 20. Amy Winehouse’s 2006 LP “Back to Black” came in at #33, and BeyoncĂ©’s 2016 release “Lemonade” earned a #32 listing.

D’Angelo’s “Voodoo” barely made the list in 2003 at #488, but it reached the #28 spot this year. Same with Wu-Tang Clan’s “Enter the Wu-Tang,” which rose from #386 to #27, and Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” which soared from #386 to #10. Also note the significant movement of Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” (#137 to #37), The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ready to Die” (#133 to #22), Jay-Z’s “The Blueprint” (#464 to #50) and Nas’s “Illmatic” (#400 to #44).

Some vintage LPs that didn’t rank very highly in 2003 were judged more favorably in 2020, illustrating how important their influence remains among newer generations. Some notable examples: Joni Mitchell’s confessional “Blue,” rated #30 in 2003, ranked #3 this year; Stevie Wonder’s opus “Songs in the Key of Life,” rated #56 in 2003, vaulted all the way to #4 on the new list; and “Purple Rain,” Prince and The Revolution’s tour de force, jumped from #72 to #8.

Just as curious were albums like these: Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain” (1972), which rated only #486 in the first list but improved to #136 this year; Cyndi Lauper’s “She’s So Unusual” (1983) was a #494 dud in 2003 but ended up at #184 in 2020; “Talking Heads’ “Remain in Light” rose from #126 to #39; David Bowie’s “Station to Station,” an unimpressive #323 in 2003, bypassed “Low” and “Hunky Dory” to reach #52 in 2020; and The Police’s “Synchronicity,” inexplicably relegated to a #455 slot in 2003, would up at #159 on the new list.

There was plenty of reassessing of relative values of a given band’s album catalog. An innovative but polarizing group like Radiohead is a case in point. In 2003, their second LP “The Bends” came in at #110, with “OK Computer” managing a respectable #162. In 2020, the group’s “Kid A” made the Top 20, “OK Computer” found itself at #42 while “The Bends” dropped to #276.

Curiously, some albums barely budged in the listings. The Beach Boys’ 1966 LP “Pet Sounds,” #2 in 2003, retained that position in 2020. Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” moved down a couple slots, from #18 to #21. Carole King’s “Tapestry” improved a bit, from #36 to #25. Other minimal changes: Bob Marley’s “Legend” (#46 to #48); Guns ‘n Roses’ “Appetite for Destruction” (#61 to #62); Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album (#66 to #58), and Neil Young’s “Harvest” (#78 to #72).

These lists make for some spirited debates between music lovers of all ages. I disagree with many dozens of selections on the 2003 list, and twice that number on the 2020 list, but it doesn’t much matter. My view comes down to this: My opinion is just that, MY OPINION. It’s just one person’s preferences and tastes. These RS lists, with all their dumbfounding choices and rankings, are at least an amalgam of hundreds of informed opinions, which probably gives them more credibility than my solo list, however well informed it might be. As the old saw goes, “There’s no accounting for taste.” Particularly in the arts, and especially in pop/rock music.

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Here are the Top 20 albums, as selected in the 2003 RS list:

  1. The Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”

2. The Beach Boys “Pet Sounds”

3. The Beatles “Revolver”

4. Bob Dylan “Highway 61 Revisited”

5. The Beatles “Rubber Soul”

6. Marvin Gaye “What’s Going On”

7. The Rolling Stones “Exile on Main Street”

8. The Clash “London Calling”

9. Bob Dylan “Blonde on Blonde”

10. The Beatles “The White Album”

11. Elvis Presley “The Sun Sessions”

12. Miles Davis “Kind of Blue”

13. The Velvet Underground “Velvet Underground and Nico”

14. The Beatles “Abbey Road”

15. 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”

Two from the 1950s, 11 from the 1960s, four from the 1970s, two from the 1980s and one from the 1990s, none from the 2000s.

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The Top 20 albums, as selected in the 2020 RS list:

  1. Marvin Gaye “What’s Going On”

2. The Beach Boys “Pet Sounds”

3. Joni Mitchell “Blue”

4. Stevie Wonder “Songs in the Key of Life”

5. The Beatles “Abbey Road”

6. Nirvana “Nevermind”

7. Fleetwood Mac “Rumours”

8. Prince “Purple Rain”

9. 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”

None from the 1950s, five from the 1960s, six from the 1970s, four from the 1980s, one from the 2000s, two from the 1990s, two from the 2010s.

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Just for fun, and because it’s my blog to do so, here are my Top 20 albums of all time, as of early November 2020. Ask me again a few weeks or months from now, and I may have some different choices!

  1. Jethro Tull “Thick as a Brick”

2. The Beatles “The White Album”

3. Crosby Stills Nash and Young “Deja Vu”

4. Joni Mitchell “For the Roses”

5. Allman Brothers “At Fillmore East”

6. Bruce Springsteen “Born to Run”

7. The Who “Who’s Next”

8. Steely Dan “Can’t Buy a Thrill”

9. Paul Simon “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon”

10. David Bowie “Ziggy Stardust”

11. The Beatles “Abbey Road”

12. James Taylor “Sweet Baby James”

13. Led Zeppelin “Led Zeppelin I”

14. Batdorf and Rodney “Off the Shelf”

15. Dire Straits “Making Movies”

16. The Judybats “Native Son”

17. Stevie Wonder “Innervisions”

18. R.E.M. “Automatic For the People”

19. Bob Marley “Legend”

20. Jimi Hendrix Experience “Are You Experienced?”

None from the 1950s, four from the 1960s, 12 from the 1970s, two from the 1980s, two from the 1990s.

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If nothing else, these lists should give you plenty of music to explore. Who knows? An artist or album you’ve never heard of could end up being in your own Top 20…or at least Top 500!

The playlist below includes one selection from each of the Top 20 albums on the 2020 edition of RS’s Top 500 Albums of All Time.

4 comments

  1. Budd · 17 Days Ago

    Nice job, Bruce. The movement of the songs is a little maddening. I think I like your rankings better, but I am an old guy.

    Like

  2. Steven Rolnick · 17 Days Ago

    Glad to see Jimi made the cut on your list!

    Like

  3. pdscullin · 17 Days Ago

    Thanks, Bruce. As always, you give an informed perspective.
    I suspect your rock critiques may put you on some list soon.

    Like

  4. brucehhackett · 17 Days Ago

    Many thanks, Patrick.

    Like

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