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.
90. Stevie Wonder – Talking Book
I’ll start with a disclaimer – Stevie Wonder has three albums in the top 100. Rightfully so. Also correct is Rolling Stone’s decision to label Talking Book as his third best. It is a masterpiece that is only underappreciated because of the success of its conductor’s future projects.
Talking Book, the second album Stevie Wonder delivered for Motown in the year of 1972, would kickstart the career of perhaps the most prolific master of jazz, funk, and soul that popular music has ever witnessed.
Though “Superstition” has endured more than any other track from the album, this masterpiece of movement and picture of perfection is by no means alone. “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” opens the record with a touching and balanced duet of love that sets the tone for the following nine tracks. Perhaps the most underrated track of the album, however, is the track “Big Brother.” Though Wonder is known for his piano/keyboard skills, this track showcases his brilliant understanding of the harmonica and percussion instruments – both of which take the front seat of this track. Add to that an excellent vocal performance from Wonder as well as an eastern sounding guitar that patiently leads the song to its conclusion three and a half minutes later.
Though Talking Book is ranked lower than two of Wonder’s later albums, it is by no means a delicate project. In just ten tracks, Stevie Wonder conveys his iconic tone of social commentary, introspection, and, most importantly, love. What makes Talking Book and the rest of his catalog so impressive is that – not once – do Stevie’s intentions seem contrived. It is worth noting, Stevie Wonder was just over twenty years old upon the album’s release. So, at only over twenty-years-old, Stevie Wonder played nearly every instrument on the album and produced the entire project. And don’t forget, he can’t see. If that doesn’t make you feel useless, I don’t know what will.
89. Dusty Springfield – Dusty in Memphis
Just like Rolling Stone’s top 100 albums list, nothing about Dusty Springfield makes sense. The woman that became one of the greatest soul singers of her era and whose music has lasted five decades past its peak is a white lady named “Dusty” who was born in London in 1939. This enigma of an artist created one of the most laid back, seductive, and compelling albums of all time. Now, should it be in the top 100? Yes!
Think about it: Dusty in Memphis has such iconic songs as “Just a Little Lovin’,” “Breakfast in Bed,” and, of course, “Son of a Preacher Man.” Each of these songs delivers a perfectly weighted slice of soul. Through every lyric, Dusty delivers a hesitancy that was present in the creation of the album. A fan of Motown before she became a contributor, Dusty Springfield was so intimidated by the opportunity to record an album featuring session artists who worked with Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, that she never sang with them in the room. In fact, Dusty never went to Memphis at all. The instrumentals were created there and sung over by Springfield in a studio in New York. Regardless of its inception, Dusty in Memphis became an instant classic that has since been featured numerous times throughout film and television in such productions as Pulp Fiction and even The Office.
88. Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison
So this is a sin, right?! I’m not going too far if I say that whoever decided to rank this so low deserves to burn in hell for eternity alongside Saddam Hussein and Mr. Burns, am I?
I challenge anyone to pick an album from Rolling Stone’s top 100 list that has a quarter of the energy, intimacy, and sincerity as is contained in At Folsom Prison. Recorded when Cash was thirty-four years old, the “man in black” was already being pushed away from the country-western genre he helped pioneer. Realizing the true purpose of his craft, however, Johnny Cash decided to say “screw you” to the commercialized world of over-produced hillbillies and return to the audience that championed his early successes.
In front of two-thousand inmates at Folsom Prison, Johnny Cash delivered one of his most emotional and well-crafted performances of his recorded career. Every single song – and I really mean that – every single song has the potential to make you cry and the potential to make you laugh. The only thing you won’t be doing is pulling a straight face. On every track, you can hear the urgency of the inmates to escape through their prison walls and into the lives of Cash’s characters. This phenomenon – the intense connection between Cash and his audience – is by no means contrived. No, this audience desired to enter Cash’s music because he penned his lyrics with these very men in mind. Put simply, Cash’s audience that night in 1968 was filled with the characters of his music. Like Dylan and Springsteen after him, Cash possessed an almost supernatural ability to describe the thoughts, fears, and hopes of a single, lonesome soul in the span of a few minutes.
Johnny Cash’s absolute mastery of music was appreciated far too little over his seventy-one years. Yes, “I Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire” are sweet and endearing tunes. Compared with “Dark as the Dungeon,” “Cocaine Blues,” “Send a Picture of Mother,” and “Give My Love to Rose,” however, those two songs are nothing more than appetizers for Cash’s main course.
The equally endearing and soul-crushing tracks on At Folsom Prison reveal the torment and beauty at war in Cash’s heart. His forty-five-minute performance exposed this battle to a group of 2,000 men who knew his struggle all too well. The sincerity of his storytelling and the simplicity of his delivery established him as one of the greatest songwriters to ever pick up an instrument and must have been a reason why in 1994, with time running out, Rick Rubin sat Cash down in his living room, handed him a Martin Dreadnought Guitar, and pressed record.
87. Pink Floyd – The Wall
Pink Floyd’s most extravagant and indulgent theatrical album remains extremely overrated even forty years later. The problem with The Wall is that – well – it sounds like what it is: a previously successful rock group trying to create a Kubrick-inspired metaphor for oppression and totalitarianism. Remember, the same year that The Wall hit the shelves, punk rock was gouging a hole in the heart of pop culture thanks to bands like The Sex Pistols and The Clash. With the ability of hindsight, we can now assert, without question, that 1979 was a year in which the arena-playing rock groups of years earlier breathed their final breaths at the expense of a new wave of music.
Though The Wall remains overrated, the album is not absent of deep, meaningful songs. Roger Waters’ overwhelming inspiration for the project led to such songs as “Into the Flesh,” and, of course, “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2.” Though these songs still sound like messages from an alien planet where the only language is disco, they create a brittle shell for the album. With a massive production that includes thunderous guitar riffs, soaring synths, and angsty lyrics, these songs hold no punches. These anthems, however, make up the weakest elements of the project – the segments of the album in which Pink Floyd trips over visions of grandeur into the unforgiving world of Spinal Tap parody.
The beauty of this album is expressed in the stripped-down tracks at the core of the track list. “Mother,” “Goodbye Blue Sky,” and “Nobody Home” contain little more than an acoustic guitar, the occasional piano, and a soft vocal. Ultimately, these tracks convey the themes of abandonment, fear, and hopelessness the most vividly. Though the rest of the album forces symbolism and metaphor down the listener’s ear canal, these tracks softly approach the thesis of their production with simplicity and restraint. If Pink Floyd dedicated more time to conveying the essence of their message rather than seeing how many synths and laser effects they could fit into a single track, this album may have been worthy of its position on this list.
86. Bruce Springsteen – Born in the USA
An artist whose cutting narratives and anthems of blue-collar America are unparalleled in popular music, Bruce Springsteen released Born in the USA as a bridge that connected the depressing imagery of his songwriting with the desires of his fans for something far more polished. Born in the USA, therefore, cannot be discussed without direct mention of the album that precedes it, Nebraska, the album that should be in this spot instead of tucked away at number 226.
Nebraska contains the essence of Springsteen’s tormented genius. In a flurry of two or three-minute narratives, Springsteen seems to converse with an unknown neighbor whom he refers to as “mister.” Stories of prison executions, dead dogs on the side of the road, and the suffocating hopelessness that followed the recession of the mid-70s establish the essence of Springsteen’s forty-minute lecture on the soul of the United States. Nebraska was Springsteen at his most vulnerable and potent state. For that reason alone, it deserves a spot ahead of Born in the USA, the album that was without question Springsteen’s commercial peak.
So, in 1984, when Springsteen’s manager John Landau heard the original mix of Born in the USA that had been produced as a sequel to Nebraska rather than a return to the pop charts, he threw a guitar at Springsteen and demanded that he write a hit. Springsteen obliged. The album that followed would fool Springsteen’s massive audience into believing that Born in the USA was an ode to the stars and stripes rather than an intimate glimpse at the society that Springsteen came to embody.
The title track, “Born in the USA,” is the perfect example for Bruce’s sarcasm on the album. In the original recording of “Born in the USA,” the track sounds like a Woody Guthrie inspired tale of the horrors of war and the lies of an American society that fails to support its veterans. Stripped to its absolute minimum, the track features only Springsteen’s vocals, a rattling guitar, and a teeth-rattling howl. But, if you bring in the E Street Band to play on the song and slap a soaring organ over the entirety of the four and a half minutes, “Born in the USA” morphs into a patriotic salute. Springsteen was urged to construct the entire album with these added polishes to his tracks, turning otherwise lonesome and gut-wrenching tracks into poppy tunes that littered the charts.
Springsteen retained the ability to showcase some of his deeper cuts, adding “Downbound Train” and “My Hometown” to the album – songs that remain among his most emotionally painful to listen too.
As an artist, Bruce Springsteen soars when given the freedom to express himself in any way he wants. Be it through a 4-track “Portastudio” or with a perfectly delivered Clarence Clemens Sax solo, Springsteen has created his best material when he has been in control. On Born in the USA, the corporate hand of Columbia records pushed him in the directions of the charts. Unfortunately, for this reason, more people know Bruce Springsteen for his dance with Courtney Cox in the “Dancing in the Dark” video than his efforts on Nebraska and the majority of his other masterful creations.
85. Aretha Franklin – Lady Soul
There’s a reason why Aretha Franklin is known as the Queen of soul. Her flawless range, emotional delivery, and belief in the words she sang helped establish her as the most iconic voice in all of American music history. For all of the grandeur of her career and the many memorials that followed her death, Aretha Franklin’s most significant musical achievements came in the form of two albums released between the years of 1967 and 1968, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You and Lady Soul. Rolling Stone decided to rank them side by side for some unexplained reason, but there appears to be a shred of logic to the pairing. Released in such quick succession, these albums contain the songs that are synonymous with soul and anthems of Aretha’s prolific career. If these albums were combined into a sort of “Greatest Hits, 1967-1968,” it would be a project worthy of the top ten. Unfortunately, they remain separate and must be treated as such.
Lady Soul, released in 1968, contains such iconic songs as “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” and “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone.” The album sounds like a cathartic expression of love, frustration, and hope. Much of these tones stem from Franklin’s turbulent marriage to her manager Ted White. Whatever difficulties she endured in her private life, what comes across through the speakers is a release of energy unlike any album of her genre or era.
84. Aretha Franklin – I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You
I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You was Aretha Franklin’s debut for Atlantic records. The album marked not only a massive shift in the direction of her career, but it also debuted an intense collision of funk, soul, and rock that was foreign to the Motown audiences of the time. If there was any hesitation to Franklin’s barnstorming vocals and energetic instrumentation, it was short lived.
“A Change is Gonna Come,” “Do Right Woman – Do Right Man,” and – of course – “Respect” remain among the most potent female vocal performances in the history of the craft. The sincerity of Franklin’s message and the vigor with which she injected every syllable quickly established Aretha as the voice that would lead the country after the Civil Rights movement and into the present day.
83. The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Axis: Bold as Love
Is Jimi Hendrix a phenomenal guitar player the likes of whom we may never see again? Yes. Does his talent at a single instrument make up for his lyrical skills that lack in comparison? Not quite.
For this reason, Axis: Bold as Love should by no means be featured in the top 100. Now, just because it is not worthy of this position does not mean that it is bereft of brilliance. Jimi Hendrix delivers a series of ripping solos and psychedelic riffs that were genuinely groundbreaking for his era. These moments of inspiration, however, do not make up for the lacking vocals and ultimately dull tones of the majority of the album's tracks. Perhaps it is solely the now played out cliché of hippy metaphors and descriptions of drug drips, but many of Hendrix’s tracks struggle to tear themselves from a path that now seems somewhat routine.
The album shines, however, on both “Castles Made of Sand” and “Little Wing” in which Hendrix delivers mesmerizing messages of calculated emotion over the simplistic brilliance of his iconic six-string. Drawing on the themes of these two songs, Hendrix would create a third album that displayed a complete evolution to the peak of his genius. That album, Electric Ladyland, is featured correctly just around the corner at 55.
82. Neil Young – Harvest
When Neil Young pulled in to Nashville, Tennessee to make an appearance on Johnny Cash’s ABC-TV variety show early in 1971, few fans of the mysterious Canadian knew that he was in the middle of conceptualizing his first solo project. In fact, the same week that he appeared on Cash’s program, Neil Young received a call from David Briggs, a session musician who had recently opened Quad Studios and was eager to show Young his new technology. Upon entering the Nashville studio, Neil Young immediately took out his guitar, recognizing the place as the home for his new album. That night, Young laid down four tracks on Harvest including “Heart of Gold,” his first and only number one hit.
At this point in his career, Young had accomplished much. As a guitarist and vocalist for Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young had established himself as a dependable figure in the growing soft-rock movement. This role got him the final position in Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, where he featured as a more prominent contributor, lending his iconic voice to their most famous hit “Ohio.” This success, though significant, did not feature the real Neil Young, the one that presents himself on Harvest.
Harvest, therefore, debuted as a significant marker in the schism of rock ‘n’ roll. Listening today, Harvest sounds more country-western than classic rock and – to an extent – it should. This stripped down version of rock exposed Young’s audience to a more revealing look at his ability as a songwriter. The resulting success of “Heart of Gold” proved Young’s ability to hang with the best musicians of his day. But does the album have the strength to take such a prominent spot in the list of the 500 greatest albums? I think it does… barely. As a set of 10 songs, Harvest does not blow you away with revolutionary guitar solos or overt political statements. Instead, it sneaks up on its listener and taps them on the shoulder, inviting them to take a glimpse into the mind of this twenty-seven-year-old Canadian. His concerns with age expressed on “Old Man” and his throat sticking depiction of drug abuse on “The Needle and the Damage Done” describes profound concepts through the simplest of deliveries. After showcasing the power of such tactics on Harvest, there can be no questions as to why Young has been cited as an inspiration to musicians and groups like Beck, Radiohead, and Pearl Jam.
81. The Clash – The Clash
Here’s an indisputable fact – if The Sex Pistols had released one more album after Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, The Clash’s first album, The Clash, would be ranked higher than NMTB on this list. So much of the hype surrounding The Sex Pistols only record stems from their position as pioneers of punk who quite literally lived and died by their music. The aura surrounding their instantaneous ascendancy and crashing downfall has given their album the status of untouchable. When placed in the ring with The Clash, however, NMTB barely lands a punch.
The Clash is a junky, fast-paced lecture on the mundane lives of the working class, frustrating and oppressive bosses, and the simple fact that, well, “London’s burning.” When it comes to punk rock albums, few contain such in-depth glimpses into so many cliché punk issues. Do not for a second, however, believe that The Clash was simply riding the coattails of the movement. Songs like “White Riot” and “Police and Thieves” – a six-minute cover of Junior Murvin’s reggae ode to the London riots of 1976 – showcase the spectrum of the band’s music that would factor into each of their subsequent albums.
“Garageland,” the final song on the album, is one of The Clash’s greatest, yet most underrepresented songs. Along with an obligatory critique of the political machine, the song focuses on the band’s joy with being a “garage band” that comes from “garage land.” Coming from the underground, the band reveals their satisfaction with stirring the pot. Joe Strummer makes this apparent with his out-of-tune vocal performance at the beginning of the song that disgraces a truly engaging introduction. This lack of cohesion, however, underlines the bands entire thesis. Their music is not meant to slide perfectly onto the radio or someone’s record player. Instead, they draw from a variety of genres to create a sound that is completely unique. This approach is extremely apparent on The Clash and set the bar for the success of the albums that followed.