Rolling Stone has updated their somewhat iconic, but forever debated, list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The editors say they threw the whole thing out the window and started from scratch, but that’s a little hard to believe when you compare the new ranking to the original list. It’s more like they pressed shuffle and added a few genres, a little bit more BIPOCs and a sprinkle more female artists.
First let’s talk about that original list. It was published in 2003, two years after the first iPod started changing the way people consume music. Because of that device, nowadays you no longer have to be a household name or contribute to the dominant genre to make in impact with your music or have millions of fans. But despite the music revolution unfolding around them, Rolling Stone’s first edition of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time was dominated by white male rockstars. The top 10 alone featured four appearances by The Beatles.
As if the internet didn’t already have enough to argue about, now we have the new list. I assume the motivation behind the update was to not only evaluate the new classics produced in the last two decades, but also to take off their rose-coloured glasses and factor in the institutional racism and misogyny in the music industry and how that affects the way music is critiqued. I expected the new list to be more racially diverse, and while it still includes a whopping 9 albums by The Beatles and 8 by Bob Dylan, it now includes 6 albums by Kanye West and 4 by Aretha Franklin. Rolling Stone says the new list shows the diversity of popular music.
"Hip-hop’s legacy and continued vitality stands out (with three times as many rap albums represented on the new list as on the original), as does the interwoven lineages of soul music: Prince has two albums in the Top 50; The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill jumped from 312 to 10; and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On (an album for these times if there ever was one) beat out the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to take over the Number One spot.”
What I didn’t get from this list was a whole lot more women. While Aretha and Joni Mitchell albums make a handful of appearances, there aren’t many female artists from the modern era. In a quick glance I noticed 18 albums by women released after the year 2000, with none of them in the top 30. Beyoncé’s Lemonade captured the highest spot among female albums at #32, and Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black follows at #33. That’s compared to male artists of the modern era, who landed at least 30 albums on the new list. Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy takes the #17 spot, and Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning DAMN. comes in at #18. And it’s like Rolling Stone knew the female representation would be called into question because on almost every article on their site regarding the new list they’re proudly proclaiming how Beyoncé and Taylor Swift were among the new group who cast their votes for the updated list.
I think one of the reasons women aren’t recognized as often, apart from the obvious lack of respect for female art, is that pop music doesn’t ever get its due. People think pop lacks artistry, talent and effort, but yet, not everybody can make a great pop song. You often hear the Beyhive tweet things like ‘Beyoncé can do country, but how many country artists can do Beyoncé?’ And it’s true! Pop stars can be versatile, unmatched talents. Take Lady Gaga for example. She just released the music video for “911,” her latest single off her sixth album Chromatica. The song poetically and metaphorically describes Gaga’s relationship with an antipsychotic medication which she’s prescribed.
“I can’t always control things that my brain does,” Gaga told Apple Music in May. “I know that. And I have to take medication to stop the process that occurs.”
People look down on pop music because it’s fun, and it’s feminine, and we can dance to it, but if you get a man with vocal fry singing about the same subject matter, with a guitar riff thrown in there, we call it soft-rock and it’s praised. Gaga did make the list, with her 2011 album Born This Way landing a number #484. It’s the album with “Judas,” “Edge of Glory,” "Yoü and I,” “Marry the Night,” and of course the smash hit “Born This Way.” When Rolling Stone recreates this list in say, 2035, I expect it to rank much higher.
Overall, I feel like the new list is baby steps forward when I wanted it to be leaps forward, but I do understand it’s a difficult task to boil down the history of recorded music into 500 entries. The bias for male artists didn’t come from a select group of Rolling Stone editors. They collected 300 ballots from musicians, producers, journalists, and execs who they asked to rank their 50 favourites albums. They published a bunch of those voters names on their site, but they don’t have statistics on how many are women, BIPOCs, and/or LGBTQ+. Nor do they provide the age demographics. Maybe the pool isn’t diverse enough? If I were voting I would never have put a Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and any other soft rock album in my top 50 faves. My list would have included Mariah Carey’s The Emancipation of Mimi, which unjustly landed at No. 389. Off the top of my head, I would also vote for Tina Turner’s Private Dancer, Fergie’s debut album The Duchess, Mary J. Blige’s No More Drama, P!nk’s I’m Not Dead and maybe Christina Aguilera’s sophomore album Stripped. None of which made the list.
I also have to remember the list isn’t about artists, or songs, it’s about complete bodies of work. They’re looking for albums that have no “skips.” But you’ll notice there’s greatest hits compilations on the list. Isn’t that cheating? I didn’t notice any Céline Dion on the list. Falling into You won a Grammy for album of the year, I feel like that’s worthy of top 500, but you definitely can’t tell me that a Céline Dion greatest hit wasn’t deserving.
Lainey asked if BTS made the list… to her and millions of other fans’ dismay, they did not. At first I thought, ‘they’re too new to be on the list,’ but they actually released their first studio album six years ago and also, Harry Styles made it on the list at #491 with his less-than-a-year-old (!!) album Fine Line. Harry’s music and image is pretty femme, but he’s still a man with some guitar riffs. Look at the respect he’s earned already. I was streaming “Watermelon Sugar” like everyone else, but Fine Line in the top 500 albums of all time? I think not. Give that spot to our queen Céline!
Take a look at the full list here.