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TO RANK OR NOT TO RANK?

An honest glimpse into Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list


By Addison Schmidt


Graphic By Ellie McCarron

Rolling Stone is not immune from controversy. Despite the magazine’s greatest articles — “Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas,” “Being James Brown,” “In the Valley of the Shadow of Death” — there exists major failures with the publication. 


Take, for example, “A Rape on Campus,” which told the fabricated story of a University of Virginia gang rape that never took place. Or the controversial comments of Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone’s founding father, who said — in not-so-uncertain-terms — that black and female musicians aren’t on the same level as his aged white rock pals. 


But no Rolling Stone product walks the line between controversy and praise more delicately than their “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list, a monumental collection of records spanning more than six decades of music from all genres. 


The “all-time” list was created in 2003 but underwent significant updates in 2020 and 2023. It remains one of Rolling Stone’s most popular articles and has been viewed “hundreds of millions of times” on the Rolling Stone website. But just as the list has been revered for the sheer effort of its action, it has faced an equal amount of ridicule. 


USA Today critic Edna Gunderson described the original 2003 list as “weighted toward testosterone-fueled vintage rock.” Even as the list shifted towards a more diverse range of artists and genres with its 2020 update, critics still weren’t satisfied. Many felt that as Rolling Stone attempted to modernize the list, the ranking itself fell apart, with little indication as to how or why the new changes were made. 


When the list was revamped in 2020, an attempt was made to diversify it. The New Yorker described this shift as “poptimism,” an emphatic drift toward artists like Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Adele, and other heavy-hitting female artists who were dramatically changing the tides of the popular music scene. 


But even as “poptimism” made itself present, other genres were noticeably missing, namely rap music, perhaps the most popular genre of the 21st century. Rap isn’t totally absent from the 500 list — out of the top 25 albums, four are rap or rap-adjacent albums. 


But only one — Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly,” at No. 19 — is from this decade. And Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” which resides at No. 10, is best defined as R&B and rap, rather than a stand-alone rap album. 

Rolling Stone’s rap issue is just one of several problems that exist in “list” articles. Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” has attempted to rank pieces by varying degrees of success. And almost all of them share a similar problem: an inability to actually modernize and diversify the music they include. 


Perhaps the problem rests in the decision making itself. The lack of true transparency surrounding the “artists, producers, critics and music-industry professionals” that make up the voting body makes it hard to trust that the results are unbiased.


It might be better for Rolling Stone to consider allowing fans to vote on these articles. A readership-wide poll would reflect the opinions of those who listen to popular music, making up for the gap between rap and other genres in the top 100. 


But even this solution doesn’t answer the ultimate question posed by “all-time” lists: Why even make them in the first place? 


The merit of these articles exists not in the rankings themselves, but in what they can offer to the reader. Within the 500 albums, a journey through genres occurs, bouncing from jazz (John Coltrane, Miles Davis), to classic rock (The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Nirvana), to New Wave (Talking Heads), folk (Neil Young, Joni Mitchell), heavy metal (Metallica), and lands in the soul of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” ranked as the “Best Album of All Time.” 


By using these articles as a guide rather than a definitive ranking, readers are left with a beginner’s list to lead them through the history of popular music, stretching back nearly a century. 


Use these types of articles as a guiding figure — a sherpa to lead you through some of the heaviest hitters in music history. But don’t let a list dictate what you consider to be great. 


That’s no one’s decision but your own. 

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