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What are the 500 best albums? Rolling Stone has an answer

Magazine looks to music’s stars to rate the work of their peers
This image released by Abrams Books shows cover art for Rolling Stone magazine ‘s “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” (Abrams Books via AP)

Is Fleetwood Mac’s landmark album “Rumours” better than “To Pimp a Butterfly” by Kendrick Lamar? Should “Tapestry” by Carole King be ranked higher or lower than “Thriller” by Michael Jackson?

Rolling Stone magazine has some answers in a new book that’s sure to spark conversations — “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” It’s where you’ll find that Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” fittingly sits just ahead of “Ready to Die” by The Notorious B.I.G., at No. 21 and No. 22, respectively.

“Every record on here is in some ways on for different reasons,” said Jon Dolan, the reviews editor at Rolling Stone who helped create the book. “We are really happy, to be honest, about the whole list.”

But if you disagree with the rankings, don’t blame the folks at Rolling Stone. Blame Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Iggy Pop. Nile Rodgers, Questlove, Billie Eilish, Herbie Hancock, Saweetie, Carly Rae Jepsen, Lin-Manuel Miranda and members of Metallica and U2, among dozens of other artists. They were among the judges.

The book’s editors reached out to about 500 voters from the world of music — artists, journalists, record label figures and Rolling Stone staffers — and asked for their top 50 albums (Stevie Nicks kindly offered 80). They got some 4,000 albums and created a spreadsheet with weighed points.

On every page, the artists make a fascinating musical tapestry. Take a section in the lower Top 100 — at No. 86 is The Doors’ self-titled debut, followed by “Bitches Brew” by Miles Davis, “Hunky Dory” by David Bowie and, at No. 89, is “Baduizm” by Erykah Badu, connecting gems of classic rock, jazz, prog-rock and R&B.

“Is there a person who loves all those things equally? Probably not. But we hope there’s people who could definitely want to try them all out and see what they think,” Dolan said. “That’s the goal: making connections and being introduced to new things.”

Dolan was impressed by some established artists embracing modern music, like John Cale of the Velvet Underground championing FKA Twigs and Nicks ranking Harry Styles’ “Fine Line” quite high.

“It’s sweet when these people who have been around are not just pooh-poohing the younger generation,” he said. “It’s neat when people are voting for things outside of their genre and what you’d expect.”

The book’s origins started in 2003 when the magazine published its first 500 list, putting The Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” at No. 1. It was a pretty Beatles-heavy list, with three more Fab Four albums making the top 10.

“It had kind of the perspective of a 45-year-old male rock fan who was open minded, who liked rap a little bit, but kind of patting it on the head, and liked R&B, but was kind of dismissive of the more recent stuff,” he said.

“We really wanted to break away from that perspective and think the list could actually have many perspectives converging.”

Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” shot up on the new list, going from No. 30 in 2003 to the top 10 now, and Prince and the Revolution’s “Purple Rain” went from No. 76 to No. 8. Another big gainer was Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” which zoomed up from the 300s in 2003 to Top 10 now.

“Certain albums become kind of new classics,” said Dolan. “It is something that’s kind of evolving and up for grabs. And we wanted to kind of at least imply that in doing this one.”

The new list is more inclusive of genres other than rock and so pushed some iconic albums down, like AC/DC’s “Back in Black” which went from No. 77 to No. 84, now nestled between “Dusty in Memphis” by Dusty Springfield and John Lennon’s “Plastic Ono Band.” (“I’m pretty sure they would accept that company,” Dolan said.)

Some artists’ catalogues have also shifted. Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” leapfrogged his “Blonde on Blonde” and “Highway 61 Revisited” this time, and the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” became their top album in the book, over “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver.”

“The warmth and the beauty and the sweetness of ‘Abbey Road’ maybe in a way wins out over this sort of landmark sonic inventiveness of ‘Revolver’ because people love to listen to it.”

There’s been some online griping about the list, like that only “The Stranger” from Billy Joel made the list and no entries from non-Western artists, Fans of U2 might be mad that “The Joshua Tree” dropped out of the Top 100 and fans of electronic music might bemoan that there are only eight electronic albums.

But Rolling Stone says the list is a snapshot as music marches onward. While the albums were being tabulated this time, Taylor Swift’s “folklore” and Bob Dylan’s “Rough and Rowdy Ways” came out, and Dolan suspects both might have made the book if they’d only come out earlier.

“Because the list is so stylistically diverse and open-ended, I think we’re kind of implying that it’s always a work in progress,” he said. “In 20 years, Rolling Stone, whatever entity it is, will do this again at some point.”

—Mark Kennedy, The Associated Press

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