These are the 500 Greatest Albums?

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time – Rolling Stone – In the Ipod Era, the record album as a work of art is sadly, a thing of the past.  We’ve forsaken our neighborhood record store for the sterile, inferior quality of Itunes – all in the name of convenience.  We gleefully pick and choose songs off of our favorite albums – records that were originally sequenced by the individual artists as a complete listening experience.  And, we’ve completely forgotten about lyrics, liner notes, and artwork – apparently these are all expendable too.  

Which makes now an odd time for Rolling Stone to release their “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” – when interest in the art form is at an all-time low.

This special-edition magazine could’ve been a definitive look into albums that you should keep intact in your mp3 player.  They even supposedly polled over 250 “music experts” to aid in compiling things.  Unfortunately, the list falls into the same elitist trappings that has doomed Rolling Stone for years.  Here’s the top ten:

10. Beatles – The White Album
9.  Bob Dylan – Blonde on Blonde
8.  Clash – London Calling
7.  Rolling Stones – Exile on Main Street
6.  Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On
5.  Beatles – Rubber Soul
4.  Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited
3.  Beatles – Revolver
2.  Beach Boys – Pet Sounds
1.  Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

List courtesy

Despite the input from a variety of sources, the magazine continues to perpetuate this myth that the “golden era” of rock music happened from about 1965-1972 – all but one album in the top ten (London Calling) falls into this span.  Not only is this view antiquated, it threatens the genre’s very existence.  Let me explain.

There was a time when radio was full of many new and different sounds, and record stores were independently owned, and easily accessible to the average person.  During the height of the music industry, the rock critic wrote of an alternate reality; one where underdogs like the Velvet Underground and Nick Drake could rub shoulders with million-selling artists like the Beatles and the Stones, all in the name of good taste.  Where an album by a complete unknown like Richard and Linda Thompson could be considered alongside a classic from the Who.  We tolerated this back then because well, it was one of many voices out there, and it made for interesting reading.  

But now, when radio plays almost no new music, where the independent record store is largely a thing of the past, and most good music magazines come from overseas, the rock critic has worn out his welcome, along with his snotty lists.  With a multitude of choices at their disposal, music is but a small fraction of the average teenager’s entertainment input.  Those that actually are interested in music should be pointed in the right direction – away from rock critic’s “pet albums” and toward the real thing – the best albums of all time.  

Let’s start at number one, shall we?  There is no denying the cultural impact that Sgt. Pepper had on the world circa 1967.  The Beatles redefined what an album could be, stretched what was considered pop music at the time, and reinvented who they were as artists.  But, over 40 years later, does any of that really matter?  Despite all of this innovation, what we have left is the music, and it’s not really that good.  How can Sgt. Pepper be the Greatest Album of All-Time, when it’s not even the best Beatles album?  (I would put at least Revolver, Rubber Soul and Abbey Road before it).  Plus, make a list of the 30 greatest Beatles’ songs – there’s a good bet that most of them (besides “A Day in the Life”) won’t be from Sgt. Pepper.  “Lovely Rita”?  “Fixing a Hole”?  “Good Morning Good Morning”?  These are sub-par Beatles’ songs.  When you want to hear the Beatles, do you really reach for this album first, before all others? No way.  If you want to turn someone on to their music, you’re much better off playing them Beatles 1.  

Also no shock is the inclusion of Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys at number two.  For years regarded as the peak of Brian Wilson’s powers, it too expanded what was acceptable on a record by a popular singing group.  The instrumentation is lush and the singing is beautiful, but, is it a great collection of Beach Boys’ songs?  Not really.  As good as it is, it doesn’t beg to be cranked on your car radio again and again.  There are several fine compilations that contain all the good songs from this album and a whole lot more.

Exile on Main Street is once again the highest-ranking Rolling Stones’ album, coming in at number seven – long praised by rock critics for its “back to basics” feel.  Yet, take away the backstory, and you’re left with a sloppy collection of half-baked songs performed by a band that was seriously strung out on drugs.  Sticky Fingers blows it to shreds, so does Beggar’s Banquet, and even (gasp!) Some Girls.  Those albums have better songs, and are a better listen all the way through.  Just because some critic long ago heaped accolades on it, doesn’t make it relevant now.  Once again – make a list of 20 of the best Stones’ songs – not one of them come from Exile.

Ahhhh, and then there’s Dylan.  Yes, there’s a three-way tie for bands with the most albums on the Top 500 – the Beatles and Stones both have ten, and so does Bob.  I’ll give you Highway 61, although it doesn’t belong in the top ten, but TEN ALBUMS?  Recent Dylan discs like Love & Theft and Time Out of Mind making the list smacks of fan-boy allegiance, and is just ridiculous.  I attended the Concert For the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame at Cleveland Stadium back in 1995.  Most of the legendary artists were allowed to play only two songs, but when Dylan took the stage, he went on and on and on.  I’ve never attended a concert where so many people were in the bathroom at the same time while the concert was going on. Old critics love Dylan, most of the rest of us don’t.  

And, if you have to tell me a story before I listen to an album in order to fully appreciate  it, I’m not sure that qualifies as “good.” Take John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band – the story behind it is an interesting one: the Beatles had just broken up; Lennon used the recording studio to exercise the demons of his recently-defunct band, as well as the pains of his childhood.  But, if a kid who only knows the Beatles reaches for this album first, he’s liable to run in the other direction.  Even with the story, it’s a painful listen, one to be played once and then tucked away for a long time.  

Sure, sure, I know what you’re saying – these are ALBUMS meant to be listened to as a work of art.  Okay, I get that.  But then, explain to me the inclusion of things like The Great Twenty Eight by Chuck Berry, Anthology from Muddy Waters, and Chronicle from Creedence Clearwater Revival – these are all collections assembled, not by the artists, but by record companies, years after the fact.  By including these “greatest hits,” the magazine is admitting that the best way to enjoy these bands is by a collection of their hits.  But, if that’s true, why not list Beatles 1?  At 30 tracks in length, it’s certainly the greatest, single-disc collection of Beatles’ music, and an excellent introduction to the band.  Same goes for the Beach Boys – The Sounds of Summer has 30 tracks and makes a fine starting point.  It’s this inconsistency that is maddening.  What it comes down to is that these guys wanted to put Muddy Waters on the list, but he never really put out a stellar album, so they list his greatest hits instead.  It’s faulty logic – you either view these albums as a work of art, or as a great collection of songs, but not pick and choose which criteria to use for each band.

Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, the greatest album of all-time in my opinion, doesn’t show up until #43 (after three Dylan albums).  No collection of songs better represents the “album” concept as a total listening experience than Dark Side.  Plus, no other record had a chart run quite like it, amassing 741 straight weeks on the Billboard Albums Chart, something the Beatles, Stones or Dylan couldn’t accomplish.  And ultimately, it still sounds great on your Ipod.

There are also unbelievable omissions – Frampton Comes Alive!, the album that single-handedly invented the concert album as a viable release and still sounds vibrant today is sadly not on the list.  Same goes for Boston’s debut, which is as perfect a record from start to finish as anything listed on this top 500.  Hysteria is listed from Def Leppard, but not Pyromania, which was the first album to show that metal could be made for the masses.  And, Deep Purple’s Machine Head, which gave us the air-guitar anthem “Smoke on the Water,” also failed to chart.  Rolling Stone has always hated “arena rock,” so Rush’s masterpiece “Moving Pictures” isn’t on the list, neither is Journey’s Escape, which contains the enduring classic “Don’t Stop Believin.”  Oh, but there are no less than FIVE albums from Radiohead here.  Melodic rock seems to have rated low, as the Gin Blossoms’ New Miserable Experience, one of the finest albums of the Nineties isn’t here, and neither is Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend or Marshall Crenshaw’s debut.  These were all left off, so they could include more Dylan and Springsteen albums.  

Okay, I used some harsh words at the beginning of this article – that a list like this “threatens the genres’ very existence.”  But, I’m dead serious.  If we want rock music to continue for generations to come, we’ve got to look at it from a younger generation’s point of view.  Suppose a teenager grabs this magazine at the checkout counter and takes it home.  He turns on Spotify and wants to listen.  A logical place to start would be at the top of the list, but the Beatles aren’t on Spotify, so he goes to the Beach Boys.  But, Pet Sounds isn’t really the best introduction of the Beach Boys, now is it?  The next obtainable artist is Dylan – not for the feint of heart.  Now, you might keep someone’s interest with Marvin Gaye, but then comes the Stones – Exile is largely tuneless rocking – again, it’s not their best work.  Finally, the kid gives up and concludes that “old music sucks,” and goes back to playing video games.  

I’ll admit that for many years, I took lists such as this one as the truth.  Then, I stumbled upon a book entitled “Kill Your Idols: A New Generation of Rock Writers Reconsiders the Classics,” where every long-held classic album is challenged with very valid arguments.   What it made me realize is that these “Greatest Album” lists are simply myths, handed down from generation to generation, without anyone actually questioning them.  It begs the question “does anyone actually listen to the albums on this list, or are they simply putting them on there to be cool”?

One more thing to consider – when we put together a list of the greatest athletes of all time, we have no problem listing LeBron James and Peyton Manning along with Wilt Chamberlain and Jim Brown.  When we compile the greatest movies of all time, Titanic and Pulp Fiction rub shoulders with Casablanca and Citizen Kane.  Yet, when it comes to rock music, we put these titles on high and leave them there.  Almost the entire top ten (and a large percentage of the top 40) is from over 40 years ago – we’re talking not even your parents’ music, but your GRANDPARENTS’ music.  That’s like my grandma singing the praises of Glenn Miller – it was a long time ago, and shouldn’t we at least question something that old?

As I get older, I grow more and more tired of rock critic elitism.  As someone who lives and breathes music, it has devastated me to watch the decline of both the record industry and the radio business.  With so many things to distract them, most young kids have little time for music.  If music is going to survive for future generations to enjoy, the snottiness has to be stripped away.  I don’t care about the story surrounding it – the bottom line is – does the music sound good today?

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time is essentially a fleeting attempt by elderly music geeks to hold onto their treasured, outdated ideals.  This type of list simply continues the narrow-minded view set up long ago that certain albums are untouchable.  Their inability to adapt, change, and re-evaluate old-held truths will eventually doom these writers to the old folks home.  The future generations of music lovers will never be able to attend Woodstock, or a love-in at Haight Ashbury, but they can still listen to the music.  Let’s do what we can to point them in the right direction.  –Tony Peters