If I made my own list of the 50 best albums of all time, I don’t think I’d include Sgt. Pepper. Granting that it’s a Very Important Album, I just don’t like it that much, and every time I go back to it, it seems to get a little worse: It has at least three novelty songs, one of the all-time worst Beatles tracks (the shrieking “GOOD MORNING GOOD MORNING”), and more mediocrities than you’d expect—”A Day in the Life” is awesome, but it only takes up so much of the album. Yet even writing this feels like some sort of moronic hot take, because of the critical weight that Sgt. Pepper carries; its reputation, like practically everything else from the late 60’s, is unassailable.
As a guy who likes pop music and making ranked lists of things, I’ve gotten tired of seeing the same boomer icons in the upper echelons every time. I would much rather listen to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or Strange Mercy than to anything by the Rolling Stones, and I suspect lots of people younger than about 45 would agree with that. And yes, we could make our own list, but cultural consecration matters. I think MBDTF should crack the list, the broad American sense of what matters from our music history. But to make any headway, first we have to know what we’re up against. To what extent do the 60’s and 70’s dominate these lists?
To that end, I decided to look into the Rolling Stone list of the 500 best albums. First created in 2003 by “a panel of 271 artists, producers, industry executives and journalists“, and then updated in 2012 to include more recent stuff, it’s supposed to be the “definitive list of the 500 greatest albums of all time”. Of course, it’s not. But it has a few advantages over other lists: It reflects a genuine consensus of the kind of people who care about Rolling Stone-type taste, it’s really long (so many things can get on the list somewhere), and it has a fair claim to some kind of broad cultural importance—Wikipedia articles about these albums, for instance, usually mention their rank on this list. So what can we learn from it?
We can start with a nice little image of every album in it, arranged by year and what I’ll call “rank score”. This is just a way to assign points so that we can value each album more intuitively—the top album (Sgt. Pepper, of course) is worth 500, number two (Pet Sounds) is worth 499, and so on down to the last album (Aquemini; it would almost have been better not to include it at all than to suggest that there are nearly 500 better albums), which is worth 1. Here’s what that looks like:
The albums stretch from Frank Sinatra’s 1955 In the Wee Small Hours to 2011’s The Smile Sessions, which is by… the Beach Boys. Yes, the most recent album on the entire list is 1960’s detritus that the band didn’t even bother to release at the time. But, as you can see, the list has at least something from most years. In fact, the only years that don’t feature any albums are 1958 and 2009.
A quick look at the top artists (everyone with 4 or more albums on the list) shows a pretty strong tilt toward the 60’s/70’s period, but there’s maybe a little more temporal (and not any other kind of) diversity than I’d expected:
The Dylan/Beatles/Rolling Stones trifecta (each with 10 albums on the list) is just what you’d expect, and once again we see a ludicrous celebration of meaningless late work. Dylan’s Modern Times comes in at 204 and is by far the highest ranking album of 2006, beating Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black by 247 spots. (It’s also beating The Times They Are a-Changin’, which isn’t on the list at all. I would be fascinated to meet an actual human who loves Modern Times but not Dylan’s “early, folky, political stuff”.) But still, at least there’s some concession to the existence of music after 1980, with Talking Heads, U2, the Police, the Smiths and Radiohead all joining the elites.
When you start playing around with the numbers, though, the time bias really begins to show. This graph shows how many albums from each year made the list:
If this is a skyline, it’s clear that the skyscrapers are almost all in the 1965-1980 period. The tallest is 1970, with 26 albums—one out of every 20 albums on the list is from that year. And this only looks worse if we change the y-axis to show us the rank score, instead of just the raw number of albums released:
Scroll back and forth between those images a few times, and you’ll see the left side of the graph steal a lot of blue from the right. So it’s not just that Rolling Stone is choosing more albums from the boomer period; they’re also ranking them higher.
I went looking for the most decorated 10-year period (really 11 years, to make it sound better), and just as you’d guess, it’s 1965-1975. This period makes up about 20% of the total timespan the list covers. Yet it contains 43% of the albums on the list, and 50% of all possible rank points. According to Rolling Stone, half of the best stuff in pop music history came out in just eleven years. And if we expand the cutoff to 1980 (as you can see above, there’s a real change in the skyline there), then we’ve got 55% of the albums and 62% of the rank points. For Rolling Stone and whatever experts were on its panel, pop music history basically happened from 1965-1980.
Now, looking at the charts above, you might think, well, 1991 looks pretty decent. That’s when Nevermind came out, and Rolling Stone ranks that album a respectable 17th, so I thought maybe there was a wave of grunge (possibly even some hiphop) on the list that year. Not really! Here are the best albums of 1991, according to them:
||The Birth of Soul
||Back to Mono (1958–1969)
||The Low End Theory
||Proud Mary: The Best of Ike and Tina Turner
||Ike & Tina Turner
||Metallica (“The Black Album”)
||Blood Sugar Sex Magik
||The Ultimate Collection: 1948–1990
||John Lee Hooker
What a picture of 1991! Who can forget walking out of Terminator 2, quoting a Simpsons joke, adjusting your Air Jordans, hopping into the car, and cranking up an album literally called Back to Mono and featuring the year 1958 in its title? Of the 13 albums on this list, 5 are compilations or reissues by artists who peaked decades earlier. If you remove that sort of thing, the skyline shifts even more to the left:
It’s not as big a shift as it might be, though, because Rolling Stone starts including compilations from a pretty early date—their 11th best album, for instance, is The Sun Sessions, an Elvis compilation from 1976. They clearly did this so they could include even older artists in the list, people whose best work predates the era when musicians thought in terms of coherent album-length works. So in the top 30 we also have something called The Great Twenty-Eight by Chuck Berry and The Complete Recordings by Robert Johnson. These aren’t really albums in any traditional sense; they’re more like “things that were available on a disc of some kind.” Certainly they weren’t painstakingly crafted statements by the artists: Johnson was dead decades before anyone assembled whatever that thing is. Just think of how we listen to those guys today. I’ll still listen to Abbey Road all the way through, but when Chuck Berry died I just shuffled a bunch of his songs on Spotify—basically The Great Almost All of It.
Reaching back to people like Robert Johnson shows another weird feature of this list: Its insane hubris. Johnson is one of my favorite musicians, but it’s pretty strange to see him here. He sang virtuosic, cryptic blues songs in the 1930’s accompanied only by his acoustic guitar; how on earth do you stack that up against Pet Sounds? It’s very obviously not the same kind of thing. Yet Rolling Stone notably does not claim to be covering the best rock albums or even the best pop albums. They claim to be covering albums, full stop, and they clearly think they mean every album of any kind.
This mainly has the effect of revealing how little the overall group behind this list understands anything outside of the 1965-1980 period. It’s most notorious with hiphop. The top-ranked hiphop album on the list is Public Enemy’s 1988 It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, a solid choice, except that it comes in at 48. “Everything ever done in hiphop is pretty good,” Rolling Stone says, “but it’s no The Band, the second-best album by The Band.” They fill out the rest of their top 100 with zero other hiphop albums; next-highest ranking is Kanye West’s 2005 Late Registration at 118th; Outkast only has two albums on the list, none in the top 350; there’s nothing by Tupac, Scarface, or the Roots; The Plastic Ono Band is ranked 23rd.
For all that, I think the hubris is even clearer when it comes to jazz. Here again, they really just shouldn’t have included any at all. Instead, Miles Davis’s 1959 Kind of Blue comes in at 12th (just behind the Elvis compilation and ahead of The Velvet Underground and Nico). From there, here is the history of jazz according to Rolling Stone, using a reasonably capacious definition of the genre:
||Kind of Blue
||A Love Supreme
||In the Wee Small Hours
||The Shape of Jazz to Come
||Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!
||Sketches of Spain
||Stan Getz / João Gilberto featuring Antônio Carlos Jobim
From this we learn that jazz took place between 1955 and 1970, and consisted of 7 musicians (counting Getz, Gilberto, and Jobim separately) and nine albums. Why not include Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives/Sevens box sets? Or The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady or Mingus Ah Um, which Charles Mingus even had the decency to release in this time period? Or anything by Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, or Billie Holiday, among, I am told, others? It can’t be because many of these artists did their best work before the album era; we’ve already seen that any collection of songs counts as an album. I guess it must be that the vast majority of jazz doesn’t measure up to 1969’s Boz Scaggs, by Boz Scaggs (coming in at 496, ahead of, again, Aquemini). (Also, I’ll admit I’m sort of amazed Herb Alpert didn’t somehow sneak in there).
The batshit confidence you need to put Kind of Blue in your top 20 and then basically forget the entire genre exists for the next 500 spots is related, I think to the conviction that the soundtrack of baby boomer adolescence represents the apex of pop music history. Which is important, because we also shouldn’t overlook the possibility that this is sort of true. I know my own list would still include a lot of Dylan and the Beatles. Chronological clusters in culture happen. Plato knew Socrates and Aristotle; Haydn taught Beethoven and Mozart; Shakespeare and Cervantes died (more or less) on the same day.
So maybe 1965-1980 was just the right time for pop music to happen; it wouldn’t be unthinkable, just as, if we ranked the best symphonies of all time, I doubt we’d have a ton from the 1990’s at the top of the list. But I’m not entirely convinced by this argument. For one, Rolling Stone aimed so preposterously high; their list theoretically should include the best symphonies of all time, assuming they were ever recorded. (There are no good classical albums, according to Rolling Stone.) For another, this brief dip into non-boomer genres shows that the people behind this list have no idea what they’re talking about when it comes to the periods and genres outside their small window of cultural love. They’re not ignoring Tupac because 1969 is better than 1994; they’re ignoring him because they don’t know what to do with him, whereas some of them have fond memories of that one track on Boz Scaggs.
I get it. If I had to list 500 albums, I’d probably have at least three Weezer albums on there by the end. Is the Green Album a masterpiece? No, but I really liked listening to it in high school. I’d also have stuff like Let England Shake and How I Got Over and Bachelor No. 2 and Jacksonville City Nights and A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, none of which made a huge cultural impact but all of which are very well done and mattered to me. And more to the point, they’re just as good as virtually everything on this list. The 10th best Beatles album is not inevitably better than good stuff from 2008, even if it wasn’t released by Bob Dylan’s ghost.
With enough millennials on the panel, I think we’d see more albums like those—the “second best album from The Band” for people who tend not to revere baby boomers, to say the least. And we’re ready: We’ve been nostalgic since before we were finished doing the things we’re nostalgic about. Our culture’s best musical days may be behind us—but they’re catching up.