Analysis: Rolling Stone mag revised its 500 Greatest Albums list; it’s out with the old…now more Black artists, women

(September 27, 2020).  This past week, Rolling Stone unveiled the latest revision to its recurring ranking of the 500 Greatest Albums of all time, as determined by people with some music cred… i.e., the people who make them.  

Over 300 recording artists, producers, critics and other music industry types participated in this year’s updated survey, the results of which Rolling Stone published on September 22.

The list was nearly completely revamped from its first two editions in 2003 and 2012.  This time, there’s no Beatles album at the top – in fact, their 1967 classic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which ranked at No. 1 on both of the previous lists, fell all the way to No. 24 on the latest revision.  Interestingly, their 1966 album Revolver and 1969’s Abbey Road both now rank higher than Sgt. Pepper’s, at No.  11 and No. 5, respectively.

So not only is a Beatles album no longer considered the best, but there’s revisionist history as to which of their albums are believed to be their best.

But it’s what’s at the top of the very popular and oft-cited RS500 list – and what’s better represented throughout it – that’s the real news.

See the list: Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of all time.

For starters, Marvin Gaye’s 1971 classic album What’s Going On is now at No. 1 – no doubt due to its enduring status as a soul and pop masterpiece, but also likely because of the social consciousness it evokes and its never-ending but increased relevance in these current politically polarized times.  

Marvin’s 1971 classic is now considered the greatest album of all time, according to Rolling Stone’s latest list.

So it’s perhaps not by coincidence that albums by women and by Black artists in general make up a larger portion of the albums both on the list and at the top of it.  

Including Gaye’s classic, 24 of the top 50 albums are by Black artists, with four of those in the top ten.  This compares to the original list when only 12 albums were by artists of color, with none of those being by females.

On the current list, eleven of the albums by Black artists are hip-hop sets, with Lauryn Hill’s 1998 classic The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill placing the highest at No. 10 – a huge statement in what is otherwise a male-dominated hip-hop field.

Women – and particularly women of color – fare better overall near the top of this year’s RS500, although they’re still pretty scarce.  

In addition to Hill at No. 10, the top 50 includes Joni Mitchell’s Blue (No. 3), Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You (No. 12), Carole King’s Tapestry (No. 25), Patti Smith’s Horses (No. 26), Beyoncé’s Lemonade (No. 32), and Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black (No. 33). 

Although having seven women in the top 50 isn’t a huge number, it is some progress (baby steps) and it more than doubles the number of females in the Top 50 of the original 2003 list (just three).  And with five of the seven albums being released well before 2003, it’s clear that even older albums are being viewed through a new prism and that this isn’t just a case of newer albums replacing older ones. 

But there is plenty of that going on also.  

On the latest update, 86 of the 500 albums came from this century, including this past year’s Best Album Grammy winner When We All Fall Sleep, Where Do We Go? by Best New Artist Billie Eilish (who, by the way, also did some of the voting for this list).  

By comparison, only 42 albums from the 21st century were on the 2012 updated list.  Ten more albums from the 2000s made the list this time – another indicator that albums that were available but excluded the last time the list was updated are being viewed in a better light in 2020.  

On the flip side of this scenario are albums from the 1950s and ‘60s – the oldest represented on any versions of this list.

In the 2003 original list, there were 155 albums from the ‘50s and ‘60s on the RS500, while in the 2012 update there were 115.  In this year’s updated version, the number dropped to only 83 that were released before 1970. 

Speaking of the ‘70s, that decade is still the best represented with 157 on the current list – a drop from 183 in the first list and 186 on the second one in 2012.

Albums from the 1980s took a slight dip – from 84 in the 2012 version to 71 in this year’s.

As far as gainers go, after the most recent decade (the 2010s), which saw the biggest increase by going from 2 in the 2012 version to 36 in this year’s update, the ‘90s saw the second-biggest gain in representation – going from 73 in the 2012 update to 103 in the 2020 list.  

With all these newer “classics” replacing the oldies on the RS500, it’s no surprise that there is less rock and more hip-hop and R&B included, especially given the state of newer rock music today.  

Rock artists – particularly newer ones – just don’t have the mainstream musical presence they once did.  There have been many weeks during the past decade when there were as few as one or two – and sometimes zero – traditional rock artists in the top half of the Billboard charts.  

Instead hip-hop and R&B music regularly dominate those charts – both singles and albums – including a week this year that was the first ever in which every album in the top ten was by a hip-hop or R&B artist.

Now I’m not saying quantity equals quality or that greater consumption numbers suggest an album’s classic status, but clearly music and artists that are in America’s greater consciousness and in the minds of the people who judge these things stand a better chance than those who are not. 

Lauryn Hill’s magnum opus ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ is the highest-ranked hip-hop album on the RS500 and the second-highest ranked album overall by a woman.

R&B and hip-hop – as a combined genre (with hip-hop doing most of the heavy lifting) – has dominated music consumption for the past four years, so seeing the likes of Kanye West (who has six albums here – three more than last time) and Kendrick Lamar (who has three, including the highly critically acclaimed 2015 set To Pimp a Butterfly at No. 19) shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.

In fact, it stands to reason that a new and younger, more diverse set of eyes would see the “classics” a lot differently than those who traditionally did the voting in the past…mostly older white males who cut their teeth on the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

Taking into account the names of some of this year’s voters, and this metamorphosis becomes even more palpable.  Consider these 2020 pollsters: Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, H.E.R., Tierra Whack – all women who were born after 1980.  Eilish wasn’t born until December 2001, and last year became the first person born in the 21st century to have a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 chart.

Aside from the younger, more diverse generation being polled, another factor in the changing complexion of the RS500 may be the social climate that exists today.  In the eight years since the last revision, we’ve had both the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements dominate headlines and factor into nearly every other facet of life as America reckons with its past and its present concerning gender and race issues.  

Classic albums by Marvin Gaye and Kendrick Lamar play well against that backdrop, especially with a younger generation of folks who cite them as being more relevant – and more important – than, say Revolver or Rubber Soul by the Beatles, even if rock purists don’t agree, musically speaking.

One such rock purist might be Rolling Stone co-founder and former owner Jann Wenner, whose publishing company divested itself of the magazine in 2017.  Wenner is known as a Beatles and Stones worshipper, and with this being the first RS500 published in the post-Wenner era, his ability to influence the rankings – or lack thereof – is perhaps best shown by the precipitous drop of Sgt. Peppers, the Beatles album that graced the cover of the magazine’s commemorative 1000th edition some fourteen years ago.  

But for anyone who believes that the only classic albums are those that were released in rock and roll’s early days, don’t worry, there’s still a healthy dose of The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Neil Young on the list.  Those four acts alone account for 30 albums on the latest RS500, with the Beatles still having the most of any artist with nine entries.

The Beatles’ 1969 album, ‘Abbey Road,’ is now considered their best and ranks No. 5 overall on the latest RS500

The relevance of Rolling Stone – the magazine – as a publication in the post-classic rock era is certainly questionable, but the RS500 list is still a conversation piece and one that gets lots of coverage and readership.  In that way, it’s like the MTV Video Music Awards of rock magazines.  Nobody watches MTV for videos anymore, but they tune in each September to see who takes home the moon man trophies.  Similarly, Rolling Stone boasts that more than 63 million people read the previous version of the RS500 list last year alone.  

In the article accompanying the release of this year’s list, Rolling Stone’s editor Jason Fine noted “The goal wasn’t to update the list but blow it up and re-create it from scratch, reflecting both the canon of pop music and the ever-shifting currents of taste.”

He added, “The classics are still the classics, but the canon keeps getting bigger and better.”

As with any sweeping change, there will likely be those who disagree. But did we really think that 100 years from now that albums from the 1960s by the Beatles and The Stones would still dominate a list that has more than a 150 years of music to choose from? This change, my friends, is just the beginning.

So what do you think?

Feel free to provide your thoughts in the comment section or in any of the blog’s social media feeds where this article is published.


DJRob is a freelance blogger from Chicago who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.

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