An Unnecessarily Incomplete Canon: A Critique of Rolling Stone’s Latest 500 Greatest Albums of All Time

Rolling Stone could learn from the adage that a rolling stone gathers no moss — and roll on by ditching the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” feature.

On September 22, 2020, Rolling Stone re-released their list of the top 500 albums of all time. Rolling Stone first released their list in 2003 and made slight alterations in 2012. To this day, the list is the most discourse-generating article that the magazine has ever produced. According to the introduction to the 2020 list, 86 of the albums are from after 2000, and 154 are new additions altogether.

Over 300 influential figures in the music industry, ranging from Carly Rae Jepson to New York Times reporters, pitched in with their personal picks for the 50 most influential albums of all time. Over 3,000 albums received at least one vote.

Given the ever-changing nature of the music industry and the fluidity of genres in the age of streaming, it was well past time for Rolling Stone to tabulate a new list. The 2003 list came only four years after 1999, a banner year for the music industry. Financially, 1999 was the peak of the U.S. music industry, with revenue clocking in at $22.4 billion dollars. 1999 also marked the sale of the first portable MP3 players (the iPod later launched in 2001) — and arguably, the beginning of the current fragmentation of the music industry. 

Along with the first portable MP3 players came the foundation of Napster, a peer-to-peer file sharing client which allowed users to download pirated (and only sometimes legal) MP3s with the click of a button. Napster’s accessibility opened the gateway to music for its 80 million registered users, who could download not only the latest studio-perfected tracks but also older music, unreleased music, and bootleg recordings. For a brief, glorious moment (though not so glorious for the record labels), music became a public good. Unfortunately, around 87% of files on Napster were copyrighted, and the copyright holders noticed. In 2001, in A&M Records, Inc. v. Napster, Inc., the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that Napster could be held liable for copyright infringement on their platform.

Napster shut down in 2002 after legal issues bankrupted the company, but like the French Revolution, its influence outlived it; and Napster, in and of itself, was a revolution. Despite its short life, it gave rise to other peer-to-peer file sharing clients, like Grokster, which infringed on copyright so severely that the SCOTUS had to put it out of business with MGM Studios, Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd. Napster was also the earliest incarnation of streaming because it marked the first time that anyone with an internet connection could listen to all music for free. 

Only two years after Napster’s demise, in 2004, Tom Anderson launched Myspace and once again revolutionized the way that people discovered music. In a time before YouTube but after Napster, Myspace’s multifunctional features, which allowed users to upload videos, songs, and photos, gave artists a platform outside of the established recording industry. Given the evolution of modern social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, Myspace may seem like a remnant of a bygone, antique internet era. But, put simply, it made artists like Katy Perry, Soulja Boy, and Fall Out Boy famous. Myspace really paved the way for niche music genres to become popular because, for the first time, people could follow artists outside of what the radio played, what their local music stores sold, and what their local bands played. Myspace also gave users a space to discuss music with others and bond over music.

These monumental developments in the music industry set the stage for Rolling Stone’s first 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. Seventeen years later, the list remains Rolling Stone’s most-read and most-discussed feature of all time. (In 2019, the list had over 63 million pageviews on Rolling Stone’s website.) After all these years of intense debate over the lists’ merit, it’s well-noted that the list overwhelmingly, and unfairly, features white men; every artist with over five albums on the list, save for Bob Marley, is either a single white man or a group of white men. Not a single solo female act has three or more albums on the list. 

It is undeniable that artists such as Bob Dylan, the Beatles (ick), and the Rolling Stones have their rightful place in the canon of music history. At the same time, a canon that acknowledges the achievements of only these artists is a reductive, racist, misogynist, and, let’s face it, boring, canon. The list didn’t contribute anything interesting or new to the cultural dialogue surrounding what belonged in the canon of music. It only reinforced the fact that Anglo-American white men only cared about art made by other Anglo-American white men.

Between 2000 and 2015, however, the music industry declined to its lowest point in decades. The CD format, which had dominated the music industry since the 90s, became all but obsolete. People stopped buying ringtones and downloading music from iTunes and other services. Then, as if from the ashes of Napster, CDs, and Myspace, a new challenger emerged: streaming. (And, albeit to a much lesser extent, the comeback kid: vinyl.)

It is impossible to emphasize how much the music industry has changed since 2003. Myspace peaked between 2005 and 2009, when it was the most-visited social media website in the world, and now, online music platforms and streaming services like Bandcamp and Spotify give artists a chance to release music without having to participate in the traditional, structured music industry. Basically anyone with an internet connection can release music and find some sort of audience. Billie Eilish and Megan Thee Stallion, who have become dominant and influential artists in recent years, originally started by releasing their music on Soundcloud. Making it big in music in 2020 is really anyone’s game, given that they have talent.

So, Rolling Stone decided to make a new list that not only accounted for the drastic changes in the music industry since 2003 but also meant to account for the deep misogyny and racism involved in critiquing music, which had so tastelessly flavored the 2003 list. Out of 500 albums, Rolling Stone’s 2003 list included only twelve women overall and zero women of color. The reforms to include more women and people of color on the list, though they are definitely  welcome changes, cannot overcome the decades of discrimination in the music industry that systemically kept talented female artists and artists of color, especially Black artists, out of the spotlight. 

Until the early 20th century, the exclusion of women in music ran deep. In fact, classical European music long used castrati (male singers who were castrated before puberty so that their voices never dropped) to sing soprano, mezzo-soprano, and contralto, instead of women (sophisticated European musicians literally preferred castrating young boys over working with women until the early 20th century). Some of the first women to make it big in music in America were Black jazz singers and songwriters, such as Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith. They worked in a performing arts industry that was almost entirely dominated by men, and their accomplishments helped open the door to more women in music and performing. 

It was only in the 1960s that more women began to enter the music industry as singer-songwriters. In 1964, Joni Mitchell, whose album “Blue” is ranked third on Rolling Stone’s 2020 list, began her music career. Even today, though there are increasingly more women in the music industry, women’s accomplishments (especially women of color’s accomplishments) are frequently not recognized. Women make up fewer than 8% of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members — not to mention the even bleaker numbers for women of color. Rolling Stone can — and should, by any means necessary — recognize more women’s accomplishments in music. It’s unequivocally good that women are featured so much more prominently on the 2020 list than on the 2003 list. At the same time, changing the list cannot undo the centuries of exclusion from music that women have faced, and Rolling Stone should do more to right the misogynistic wrongs that their publication has repeatedly enforced.

It is also imperative to note that Black people’s contributions to music in the West are truly unquantifiable; Black people invented rock, disco, country, techno, hip hop, and jazz, among dozens of other genres. In 2020, Rolling Stone may have bumped Elvis down on the list, but they still give Elvis more acknowledgement than the Black rock and roll innovators whose work he stole. [2] The Rolling Stones, whose number of albums on the list dropped from ten to six in 2020, will always receive more recognition than the Black blues artists whose music they appropriated and made palatable for white audiences.

While it’s true that no music is completely original and that all music builds off of preexisting movements and genres, these white artists didn’t just take inspiration from Black music — they adapted it for white audiences who would not accept Black music coming from Black performers, and in the process, stripped away Black musicians’ artistic achievements. The whitewashing of Black music and erasure of Black innovators in the music industry isn’t a bug. It’s a feature. No amount of finagling with the list will give proper recognition to the Black pioneers of basically every genre that’s popular in the West today.

Ultimately, there is no algorithmic methodology for determining which 500 albums truly constitute the greatest of all time. How could Rolling Stone’s music industry insiders, or anyone for that matter, unbiasedly compare two albums as drastically different as Drake’s “Take Care” and “Déja Vu” by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young? What criteria could possibly bump an album up from #439 to #438? How could Rolling Stone possibly determine that Billie Eilish’s “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?”, released last year, is one of the greatest albums of All Time, ever (or at least since 1948, when the album emerged as a format)? The answer is simple: they can’t, and regardless of how many industry experts pitched in their opinions, the list is still not objective fact. The list also completely fails to acknowledge the contributions of iconic non-Western artists, such as Ravi Shankar, whose contributions to Hindustani classical music spread beyond South Asia and massively influenced The Beatles and psychedelic rock [3]. Overall, it’s unclear whether or not Rolling Stone is equating greatness with influence.

If there’s one thing Rolling Stone should have learned from the proliferation and democratization of music over the past two decades, it’s that the value of art doesn’t depend on how it compares to other art. Despite the thoroughness and range of opinions that Rolling Stone sought for their new list, there is simply no way to holistically approach ranking the greatest albums of all time. The term “greatness” is very useful for one reason — because of its vagueness. An album’s greatness doesn’t depend on the number of lives that the music touched, or innovative techniques incorporated into the music, or the circumstances under which it was written. In Rolling Stone magazine, what makes an album “great” is that music industry insiders happened to like it. All 500 albums on the list are monumental accomplishments independently of each other, as are albums that didn’t either make the list or get nominated. Pitting the albums against each other only cheapens each work’s individual artistic merit.

The introduction to Rolling Stone’s 2020 list says, ““The classics are the classics, but the canon keeps getting bigger and better.”

By definition, canons are exclusionary, but they can still fit all of the art that rightfully belongs in them. Rolling Stone’s constructed canon of 500 isn’t tastefully exclusionary. It’s just unnecessary and foundationally incomplete.

[1] Statistics are unclear as to how many women in the Songwriters Hall of Fame other than Black women are women of color.

[2] Elvis’s relationship with Black music and the way that Elvis’s prominence affected Black artists in the U.S. is still a hotly-contested subject.

[3] In the West, the reason most people know of Ravi Shankar is because of his impact on the Beatles and on Western pop music. However, Ravi Shankar’s music (and that of other influential non-Western artists) cannot and should not be appraised only by the value that white western people assign to it.

Featured Image Courtesy of Rachel Kay (flickr.com) 

9 thoughts on “An Unnecessarily Incomplete Canon: A Critique of Rolling Stone’s Latest 500 Greatest Albums of All Time

  • October 5, 2020 at 11:54 am
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    I stopped reading when the author wrote “ick” after the mentioning Beatles.

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  • October 5, 2020 at 11:56 am
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    I stopped reading when the author wrote “ick” after mentioning the Beatles.

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    • October 6, 2020 at 2:39 pm
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      hope you feel better soon Jason

      Reply
  • October 6, 2020 at 2:02 pm
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    The author keeps trying to compare acts like The Rolling Stones to black artists that created the blues music before them or Elvis to the rockabilly acts before them, but doesn’t mention any by name! Do the research and name them. The Rolling Stones made 20+ albums. Bob Dylan is STILL making great music. They are popular and best sellers. Now name these other coloured groups with a discography as big as these artists. There are none. The reason these “white people” have multiple albums is because they did the work and wrote great music and were popular. The people they ‘Stole a sound from’ either did not put out albums or stuck together for longevity. Name these super black groups that are missing from the list!!!! You threw out the term Anglo-American, but referred to two super groups from Britain.
    You are all over the place wrong in this article… but right in how they put it together.
    I mean the female angle is spot on. As a 50 year old male, I have Kate Bush, PJ Harvey, and Bjork in my top 10, and plenty more fleshed out in a top 100. The women have always been left out of these lists, and it’s good to see more, and more diversity.
    I mean, I don’t want to see The Beatles with 8 albums in the top 20 either, but your arguments lack the examples needed for your stance.
    I mean, Van Morrison, the Irish, plays a soulful type music and plays with many black musicians. So who did he steal and borrow from? And who has since stole from Van the Man? Musicians in the industry steal from others all the time, but usually own who they stole from and compliment their heroes.
    I nod my head at these lists too (Kid A better than OK Computer???), but I know others would do a double take at my own list!

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  • October 6, 2020 at 3:22 pm
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    You have scratched the surface here. Your argument would be greatly strengthened by the works of Maureen Mahon, Jack Hamilton, Guthrie Ramsey, Philip Waksman, and Jacqueline Warwick to name a few. These scholars engage with genre, rock, high art music, race, gender, and consumerism. The names of the black artist you are missing are: Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, sam Cooke, all the fantastic musicians that came out of Motown (Shirelles, Temptations, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder), again the list here is vastly incomplete. Don’t forget The Rolling Stones magazine was originally and still publishes Rock-genre music criticism. Rolling Stones is influenced by its consumers which because it is rock music are white consumers. I agree the list should be thrown out – musical hierarchies are harmful – but maybe you should engage a little more in the nuances of the appropriation and how that has formulated genre and musical consumption.

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    • October 6, 2020 at 5:00 pm
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      Hi Clay! Thank you for the feedback. While I stand by my argument and this piece, I agree that it does only scratch the surface of music [industry] history and that there is so much more depth and nuance to these issues than are presented in this article. The history of music and esp. of people with marginalized identities in music simply isn’t something that can be holistically condensed into 2k words. I’ll definitely continue to read and learn more about the intersections of music, race, gender, and consumerism for the next time I write about music.

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  • October 9, 2020 at 11:11 pm
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    While it is true that men controlled much of the music business they were by no means at the top of the game.

    Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Ma Rainey, Sippie Wallace and their crew were the first global western superstars period. Just because some history narrative do tell you that does not change the history. They out sold men and filled concert hall in the US and Europe. They were THE stars of the day. The dominated the music scene full stop. All the big names we know like Louis Armstrong and Ellington etc came after or alongside.

    As to the castrati, I find interesting the those composers would rather mutilate a male child than work with a woman. That was some crazy cruel shit done to boys.

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  • October 9, 2020 at 11:13 pm
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    Sister Roesetta Tharpe was sing and songwriting well before the 60s and well before that was even a wonky genre label.

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  • October 10, 2020 at 1:44 pm
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    I still think the 2003 Best Albums compiled by Rolling Stone list better reflects the truly essential albums released since the 1950s. People who did not like that list complain because they believe that the sample of voters in the 2003 poll skewed too old, white, male, and rock-oriented to suit their tastes. So now in 2020, they decided to select a group of voters who skewed toward a more young, nonwhite, female, and rap-oriented group. Voila, now the younger generation who thinks that nothing good ever happened before they were born has their revised list they have been wanting since 2003. I am not impressed by this obvious, transparent, desperate attempt at revisionism. The recordings of past decades represented in the 2003 edition still stand head and shoulders above the “classics” of today. Does anybody realize how many hundreds of great albums from the golden era of the 1950s to the 1980s could have made the list along with the albums that did? If today’s music is so great, why are album sales so low? It seems like if good albums were still made now, album sales would not be so much in decline. I am supposed to be persuaded by a younger set of people who are fixated on today’s pop culture, lack historical perspective, have no respect for the past and who do not buy albums? They are supposed to be judges that decide what the greatest albums are? I do not think so. I will consult the original 2003 list for inspiration about CDs to buy in the future. After all, people of my age buy CDs of albums because they are worth having and listening to, which is an indication of tried and true quality. That is a quality lacking in the new list. There is a reason album sales are low now, and it is not just because of streaming. I have a lot of older CDs in my collection, and so much more to buy, to collect the treasure trove of music from the past worth collecting.

    Reply

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