In November 2003, Rolling Stone devoted an entire issue to what it signified as the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” It was extra-thick and extra-glossy, and called itself a “Special Collectors Issue,” for people who might keep those kinds of things. (At the time of this writing, you can find Australian and Canadian copies on eBay for cheaper than the original newsstand price, so.) To compile the list, the editors of RS asked 273 musicians, critics, and “industry figures” (anyone from producers to label CEOs) to make individual weighted lists of what they considered to be the 50 greatest albums ever made. Much has been written about these illustrious 273, but needless to say they were mostly white and almost exclusively American and/or predominantly English-speaking. This is not necessarily said to condemn the list, but rather to place it in a very important (perhaps predictable) context. Anyway, RS then took those 273 weighted lists and hired the accounting firm Ernst & Young to come up with a points system, analyze the data, and rank it appropriately.
As to be expected, much outcry and peevish debate ensued.
This didn’t stop the magazine, however, from updating the rankings in 2012, after publishing, in 2009, their list of the Greatest Albums of the 2000s and asking 100 more professional pollsters to re-consider the face of popular (mostly rock) music. With this update, some albums moved up (Graceland, Kid A), some down (Let It Be, by 306 spots), and many others were dropped completely. (In 2003, for example, No Doubt held two out of the 500 spots. By 2012, they held none.) Cue the disagreements and angry tweets.
Now here’s where we at The RS 500 stand: best-of list-making is by its very nature a ridiculous venture. To come to the conclusion—even through math—that there is a definitive, objective “greatest” anything goes against much of what it means to appreciate and discover art in any form. We aren’t here to raise up the Rolling Stone 500 Albums, and we aren’t here to knock them down. Despite its sagging cultural currency in 2014, though, the magazine historically remains a pillar of pop criticism, and its reach is still incomparable. Does it have the “greatest” things to say about any one subject? Today, few would say so. Is it still Rolling Stone? Undoubtedly.
All that being said, we started this project with a different goal in mind: to use each Greatest Album as a backdrop for equally great creative writing. From #500 (Aquemini) down to #1 (Sgt. Peppers), here you’ll find a piece of writing inspired by or in direct conversation with the music at hand. Through flash essays and fiction, The RS 500 attempted to take up the banner of what Carl Wilson, in his invaluable Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, calls “pluralistic criticism”: that which asks “here is my story, what is yours?”
The RS 500 ran for five years, from August 8, 2014, to July 25, 2019. Thank you for reading, submitting, and playing along with us. If you’re new in town, scope out the list, press play, and dig in!