In more than 50 years of Rolling Stone, the magazine has raised its hand as the first authority in rock music. This authority, that was granted by… no one, really… has led to scathing reviews of such albums as Led Zeppelin’s ‘Led Zeppelin,’ The Rolling Stones’ ‘Exile on Main Street,’ Bob Dylan’s ‘Blood on the Tracks,’ and Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind.’
These horrible takes, the needless feuds between owner Jann Wenner and the bands he wishes he was a part of, and the magazine’s struggle to stay in the current of pop culture, has granted Rolling Stone an awkwardly tenuous relationship with its readers. Regardless of this division, the magazine remains determined to proclaim the greatest 500 songs, artists, and albums. Did they contribute to these artistic endeavors? No. Must they rank them as though God tasked them to do so as a divine mission? Yes.
The following series of articles will dissect Rolling Stone Magazine’s “Top 100 Albums” rankings. I could have broken down the “Top 500,” but I think I’d be too depressed to continue after seeing Nas’ ‘Illmatic’ – an album that is widely regarded as the greatest hip-hop album of all time – in position 402. Adding insult to insanity, Nas’ ‘Illmatic’ at least made it further than the disgraceful selections of Wilco’s ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ in 493rd place and Funkadelic’s ‘Maggot Brain’ in 479th.
100 – The Zombies, Odessey and Oracle
Though familiar with individual tracks such as “Time of the Season” and “She’s Not There,” my knowledge of The Zombies was extremely limited before this week. As I listened to Odessey and Oracle, in the past few days, however, my respect and appreciation for the love Rolling Stone gave this album grew immensely. Does Odessey and Oracle deserve the 100th spot on Rolling Stone’s list? Hell no. There are at least five albums in spots 401-500 that deserve the spot more. That being said, The Zombies’ second album was an absolute joy to listen to. Perhaps it was the nostalgic melodies, the methodic plodding of each track, or just the fact that it was an album from a 60’s pop band not named The Beatles or The Beach Boys, but Odessey and Oracle refreshed my respect for early pop music that I had previously disregarded.
The album sounds a bit like an alternative soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon or the first venture of a white band into the silky drippings of funk. The uses of alternative stringed instruments as well as a silky base helped transform the album from just another overproduced pop album from the late ‘60s to a project worthy of launching the band to scoring the second #1 hit in the US after The Beatles. Yes, Odessey and Oracle is far overrated by Rolling Stone, but that does not remove its potential of receiving praise – praise it thoroughly deserves.
99 – Sly and the Family Stone, There’s a Riot Goin’ On
One word: Funkadelic. One question: where the hell is Funkadelic and Maggot Brain on this list? It’s buried all the way down at 479 while Sly and the Family Stone sit pretty at 99! It’s an outrage!
There’s a Riot Goin’ On is an oh-so-funky dive into the politics of a United States that was emerging from the ‘60s just a bit less united. The album has great tracks like “Family Affair” and “Just Like a Baby,” but these highlights are just that – highlights. Unlike the other albums of 1971, There’s a Riot Goin’ On just doesn’t hold up.
Both There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Maggot Brain were released in 1971. Another album was released that year by a man named Marvin Gaye, but we’ll discuss his project in a few weeks – don’t worry. Both Sly and Funkadelic’s albums paved the way for the funk movement as it floated off the streets of Detroit and into the airwaves of America. One album, however, contains perhaps the most underrated guitar performance in musical history – Eddie Hazel’s ten-minute, tear-jerking guitar solo on the title track of ‘Maggot Brain.’ The other album involved Sly Stone using his album title to answer Marvin Gaye. Gaye asked, “What’s Goin’ On?” Sly answered, “There’s a Riot Goin On.” Apart from this, Sly’s album contributes little to the rest of the musical landscape nearly fifty years later.
If you take nothing else from this article, I hope you listen to the song below. While recording the track, George Clinton told Eddie Hazel to “play like your mother just died.” The result was less a 10-minute guitar solo and more of a primal scream through an amplifier. Enjoy.
98 – Elvis Costello, This Year’s Model
First, let me say – I love that Elvis Costello makes it into the top 100 of the list. Few bands and songwriters survived the punk movement for more than a few albums and even fewer launched decade long careers in which they expanded their success to alternative genres. Elvis Costello is a rare breed of musician who deserves the respect this list seems to give him. So let me make it clear – I’m glad Costello has an album in the top 100. The only issue is that it is the wrong one.
Rolling Stone chose This Year’s Model for the top 100 and buried the rightful placeholder, Armed Forces deep on the list, beyond two more Costello albums, in 475th place.
After the success of My Aim is True, Costello set out to deliver the moodiest and most blatantly punk album of his young career. To do so, however, Costello decided to scrap the for-hire musicians that supported him on his debut project and put together his own super-group to fuel his success. Armed with “The Attractions” Costello delivered This Year’s Model as a new take on his budding persona.
“Radio, Radio,” and “Pump It Up” stand out as hallmarks of his itchy and sporadic exercises in energy while “No Action” and “Lipstick Vogue” parallel the muscular ferocity of his close contemporaries in The Clash. Without question, the album contains some of Costello’s best work, however, This Year’s Model fails to showcase the full breadth and depth of his songwriting.
It is for these reasons that Armed Forces would have been perfect in this 98th spot. Much like The Clash, Costello took until his third album to fully reach his stride. Remember, Armed Forces was his second album featuring “The Attractions.” By this point, the band had evolved into a cohesive unit. This advanced chemistry along with the success of This Year’s Model gave Elvis the confidence to create the most excellent album of his career.
I know that accidents will happen, but the decision to put This Year’s Model ahead of Costello’s tighter, more mature, and energized third album - oh, I just don’t know where to begin.
97 – Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
Quick spoiler, Bob Dylan has four albums in the top 50 of this list. So, excuse me if I do not bow down at the feet of Dylan just yet. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is a dark collection of songs about the coming of World War III, the death of American prosperity, and the depressing reality that lay ahead for many of Dylan’s generation in 1963. Set to a malevolent guitar, Dylan’s lyrics appear flat and deadpan. This delivery adds to the tone of dread and future pain that Dylan discusses. The album does not feature his most prophetic work or his bravest leaps from folk to rock, but it contains the essence of Dylan’s genius. All he needs is a guitar, a harmonica, and his voice to produce gut-wrenching folk ballads that would become hallmarks of his early career and anthems of a generation.
Like I said earlier, Dylan will come up quite a few more times on this list and, in 97th place, I couldn’t care less if it was Dylan’s 2009 Holiday album Christmas in the Heart. What matters, is that his most excellent work lies ahead on the list. Stay tuned.
96 – The Who, Tommy
Right band, wrong rock opera, and way, way, way, too far down the list. The correct pick, Quadrophenia, should be in the top 50.
Tommy will win the hearts of critics for being The Who’s first major, multiform project. The truth of the album, however, is that nearly all of its tracks would be absent from any rational ranking of The Who’s greatest songs. “Pinball Wizard” will forever have a cult following for the pure absurdity of the story it describes, but does that make it a great song? I don’t think so. Who’s Next, another album that should be ranked higher than Tommy, features classics like “Baba O’Reilly,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and “Behind Blue Eyes.” The album even has underrated anthems like “Bargain” and “Going Mobile” that outperform any track off ‘Tommy.’
So, why is Tommy rated so highly? Well, one reason could be that Rolling Stone Magazine founder Jann Wenner was one of the first people to whom Pete Townshend described his concept for an album centering around a “deaf, dumb, and blind” boy. Regardless of their biases, Rolling Stone should possess the auditory ability to realize that Quadrophenia reigns supreme.
For Townshend and The Who, Quadrophenia was a mature look back at the generation that spawned their following almost a decade earlier. Mod culture, brawls with rockers, and a rebellious instinct defined their audience throughout their history. Quadrophenia allowed the band to digest the emotions of teenage frustration, a love of rock music, and the risks of standing out from the crowd. The album follows Jimmy, a pill-popping Who fan who battles his parents, girls, and his own friends in pursuit of a higher purpose – a purpose he has not identified.
Quadrophenia was not just a poignant and fitting story, however, as the tracks that made up the double album stand out as perhaps the most technically brilliant and inspired of the band’s entire body of work. Keith Moon’s performance on the album shows the spectrum of his genius from cocaine-fueled solos to subtle and melodic background noise. Roger Daltry’s heart-wrenching vocals in “Love Reign O’er Me” paved the way for songs like “Champagne Supernova” that would top the charts over three decades later. John Entwhistle’s performance on “The Real Me” stands alone as the greatest individual bass guitar performance in any rock song in history. Check out this video of Townshend discussing Entwhistle’s approach to playing bass as well as a video of Entwhistle performing “The Real Me” later in his career.
Throughout Quadrophenia, however, one common thread unites the tracks: Pete Townshend. Lennon and McCartney conducted The Beatles with flowery perfection while Richards and Jagger dragged the Rolling Stone’s to greatness with a rusty chain and a pack of cigarettes. Pete Townshend established The Who as one of the greatest rock bands in history through complete and total dedication to his craft. Townshend became one of the great’s through constant practice and tireless innovation that rarely gets the credit it deserves. Rolling Stone had a chance to give him that credit by placing his greatest creation, Quadrophenia in their Top 50, but instead settled for placing Tommy, maybe The Who’s third best album, at 96th. What a disgrace.
95 – Miles Davis, Bitches Brew
I’ll get this out of the way now – I do not know much about jazz, I do not understand much about jazz, and for these reasons, I will not criticize an album by a Jazz musician like I would an Eagles album (which I would criticize… heavily).
I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Bitches Brew. The howling trumpet, the injections of an electric guitar, and the wafting bass guitar provided an experience I did not know I had signed up for when I put on my headphones and hit play. The album was transformative listen that I’ll relish when engaging with forthcoming Jazz albums.
But let’s be honest, how does one even “review” a jazz album? Are you supposed to say, “I liked when he played that note I didn’t expect?” For now, I’ll adhere to the Noel Gallagher school of Jazz music for future encounters:
So, I guess Miles Davis deserves 95th place. I know he’ll have an album higher on the list and I’m sure he deserves that too… I think?
94 – Hank Williams, 40 Greatest Hits
Not just the largest album in the Cracker Barrel gift shop, Hank William’s 40 Greatest Hits is a deserved feature in Rolling Stone’s “Top 100.” His romping melodies, trademark twang, and folksy themes of long lost sweethearts and everlasting blues are stamped firmly in rock ‘n’ roll history. Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Bob Dylan have all cited Williams as a personal inspiration for their music. With Williams’ alcohol abuse and emotional instability an unfortunate trademark of his career, it is clear that his music may not have been his only influence on those that came after him.
Hank Williams sang the songs and lived the lifestyle of rock ‘n’ roll just as the genre was finding its feet. For that, Williams deserves an audience even seven decades later.
Some bands play rock, some bands play rock ‘n’ roll. Hank William’s pioneered the latter, laying the groundwork for the former.
93 – Prince, Sign ‘o’ the Times
Paisley Park, 1987
Perhaps Prince’s most complex and intricate creation from a decade of massive success, Sign ‘o’ the Times marks an instance of divine genius that stands apart from the pop superstar’s gold-plated discography. At the age of 28, Prince had already established himself as one of the biggest pop stars of his generation. Unlike his billboard rivals throughout the over-commercialized ‘80s, Prince repeatedly held his ground as an artist first and a superstar second. The album he released in 1987 was no exception.
In 1987, Prince had his finger on the pulse of pop music. He realized that rap was entering its gritty adolescence that would soon develop into a force that would take precious air time from traditional pop stars. Run-DMC, Grandmaster Flash, and a new band, Public Enemy, were banging on the door of the music charts, demanding admittance. As he had already proved numerous times in his career, Prince was not going to be swept aside by the newest trend. Instead, he would evolve. For evidence that Prince was trying to tap into the forces rap had unlocked, listen to the album’s title track “Sign ‘o’ the Times" and then listen to “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash. They are stunningly similar and individually brilliant.
In response to rap’s arrival, Prince ditched “The Revolution,” who had backed him on Purple Rain and previous projects. Alone, however, Prince stripped down to the talents that put him on his pedestal of stardom, his songwriting, and vocals. This new Prince was a more subtle and calculated musician than he appeared on previous albums. The resulting product is a groovy and detailed story of crime, drug addiction, and love. “Housequake” is a funky dance number on par with any dance track from Prince’s catalog. “Starfish and Coffee” is a comedic track that sounds like if Big Audio Dynamite played instruments on Lyle Lovett’s “Church” while Eddie Murphy revised the lyrics. “Adore,” the final song on the album, is a six-minute lesson in seduction that only Prince could deliver. Sign ‘o’ the Times is a brilliant creation that got the recognition it deserved here on Rolling Stone’s list. Fair play.
92 – Buddy Holly, 20 Golden Greats
In a sense, it seems unfair to rank Buddy Holly on this list. Whether being credited by The Beatles’ as a central inspiration or being immortalized on Weezer’s Blue Album, Buddy Holly has earned his reputation as a pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll. The 20 Golden Greats catalogs the iconic songs that gave him this reputation. At just 22, Holly developed a unique style of hiccupping rockabilly. For such a young talent to make such an impact on the industry set a precedent for the thousands of young stars that would emerge long after his death. By the day the music died on February 3rd, 1959, the 22-year-old Texan had already blazed a path for the future of rock ‘n’ roll and was destined for a career that would have certainly led to his name featuring more than once throughout this list. Tragically, that career was cut short on the wheat fields of Iowa. Holly’s legacy, however, endured his passing and spread across the world to inspire the next generation of musicians that would carry his torch for him.
There is a reason that The Clash made a detour to Lubbock, Texas on their first tour of the United States. They didn’t know much about Houston or Dallas – cities they were scheduled to play – but Joe Strummer and Mick Jones knew something about Lubbock, something that would make them take a ten hour round trip just to visit the town. They knew Lubbock as the birthplace of Buddy Holly, and for them, that was enough.
91 – Elton John, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
My only problem with Rolling Stone here is that they place Goodbye Yellow Brick Road in 91st place. They are correct in claiming the album as Elton’s greatest – it most certainly is. But 91st? It deserves far better.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is essentially a greatest-hits album. No, it doesn’t have “Your Song,” “Rocket Man,” or “Tiny Dancer,” but it does have “Candle in the Wind,” “Bennie and the Jets,” “Grey Seal,” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” in its first six tracks. That’s not a bad start to an album.
Released in 1973, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road arrived at the peak of Elton John’s popularity. Three years after “Your Song” launched Elton-mania, Elton John created the album that would solidify his legacy. Today, nearly 45 years after the album’s release, as trailers for a biopic of his life circulate twitter and he checks off shows on his “Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour,” the 1973 album remains the peak of his career.