Recently Rolling Stone magazine put out its special issue “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. This issue is an excellent source of information for choosing good popular music from the ‘50s until today. Rolling Stone magazine has always been about rock & roll, so their album choices are mainly rock albums or albums that influenced rock music. The title of this special edition is misleading,”…best albums of all time”, you won’t find any classical music or big band music and not many country, bluegrass, jazz or folk albums. But strangely there are two Frank Sinatra albums on the list, what’s up with that? I like Frank, but why make the exception unless you also put in a Tony Bennett album or Ella Fitzgerald or Duke Ellington or any number of great singers and musicians from the ‘40s and ‘50s.
The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan have the most albums on the list at 10 each, followed by Bruce Springsteen with 8 and The Who with 7. The number one album is The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and second is The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds”. I’m happy with the one and two spot. We now know that the Beatles were so impressed when they heard “Pet Sounds” that this influenced them to create the “Sgt. Pepper” album. We have to credit Brian Wilson with elevating rock music to a new level and creating the first album that is not just a compilation of songs, but works thematically as a whole. Number 3 is The Beatles’ “Revolver”, number 4 is Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” and number 5 “Rubber Soul” also by the Beatles. These top choices are albums and musicians who had a significant influence on popular music, changing it forever.
What Rolling Stone Magazine does well is educate us on the roots of Rock & Roll. There are albums on the list by many artists who were a direct influence on the genre, like Robert Johnson, Little Walter, John Lee Hooker and Etta James. An omission in this category is Woody Guthrie. I think Dylan would gladly give up an album or two of his 10 to let in one compilation of Woody’s songs and maybe slip in an album by Pete Seeger, Woody’s friend and the godfather of American folk music.
There are many “greatest hits” type albums. The king of rock & roll, Elvis, doesn’t appear until number 11, probably because he didn’t produce many great albums, just great songs. “Sunrise” is a compilation of his early Sun recordings put out in 1999. The next early rocker at number 21, is Chuck Berry. “The Great 28” album is also a compilation of hit singles. Chuck should be higher on the list. Other early rockers that make the list are Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bo Diddley. Three blatant omissions are The Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison and Ricky Nelson. All of these guys had a huge number of hits and were true early rockers. Couldn’t they have dropped an album or two by The Beatles, who actually credit the Everly Brothers as an important influence on their singing and harmony? Or take a couple away from Bruce? Elton John has 5 albums on the list, I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded making space for Roy.
The Beach Boys have 3 albums on the list, but not one of them is from their early surfing/hot cars/hot chicks albums. Of the 3, the earliest is “The Beach Boys Today”, a good album but not representative of those early ones. They should have at least included one of their greatest hits albums to cover the early years. Included on the list is the Beach Boys album “Smile”, which to me sounds like it was written by a 6 year old on acid, probably not far off from Brian’s state of mind at the time.
Also included is the first Blood Sweat and Tears album, when Al Cooper led the group. It has some very good bluesy songs with big band back up. But the second BST album, with David Clayton Thomas, is much more consistent and has all those great hits. In 1968 it won Grammy of the year for best album beating out “Abbey Road”. Typical of Rolling Stone, edgy/hip won over popular/melodic.
The poets of the baby boom generation are largely the singer/songwriters. The top 500 hundred includes some of them. There are 3 Jackson Brown albums, his 2nd, 3rd and 4th, which I am happy about, but not his 1st, “Saturate Before Using” which belongs on the list, 2 Joni Mitchell albums, “Blue” and “Court and Spark”, but not her first 3 which are great “Songs to a Seagull”, “Clouds” and “Ladies of the Canyon”. The list includes 2 of Paul Simon’s solo albums, “Graceland” and “Paul Simon”, but doesn’t include my favorite “Still Crazy After All These Years”. There is only one Leonard Cohen album, “Songs of Love and Hate” an excellent album, but so are his first two, “Songs of Leonard Cohen” and “Songs from a Room”. Including “The Best of Leonard Cohen” album could have covered much of his early music. There’s only one Carole King album “Tapestry” and one James Taylor album “Sweet Baby James”, but there should be more.
There are 2 Johnny Cash albums, 2 Willie Nelson albums but no Waylon or Kris, and no Highwaymen albums. There are no Leon Russell albums and that is just wrong. There are no Moody Blues albums, not even “Days of Future Passed”. There are no Animals albums and no Young Rascals’ albums.
Folk music and Folk Rock were hugely popular genres in the ‘60s and ‘70s and I feel these genres are sorely underrepresented on the list. Included are albums by The Byrds, and a lot of Graham Parsons (if you were good and died young, you make the list). John Sebastian should have died young, because there are no Lovin’ Spoonful albums or any of his solo work, no America, no Doobie Brothers (with or without Michael McDonald), but somehow a Carpenters album slipped into the list, which I’m OK with, but this almost blows my theory about Rolling Stone not honoring what they consider to be “twinkie” music. There are no John Denver albums, my list would include “Poems and Prayers and Promises” and “Rocky Mountain High”. There are no Jimmy Buffet albums (it seems that out of all those voters, there must have been one or two Parrot Heads among them) and no Gordon Lightfoot. There are no albums by Joan Baez and Judy Collins, the two women who introduced us to the songs of some of our greatest singer/ songwriter/poets like Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell.
There are no albums by Dionne Warwick(what a shame to leave out all those great Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs). There are no albums by Johnny Mathis (how many of us boomers fell in love with “Misty”, “Chances Are” or “When Sunny gets Blue” playing in the background). Nobody can sing a love song as well as Johnny Mathis.
There’s album after album on the list of groups I never heard of. I can’t intelligently argue against music I don’t listen to and probably never will, but something in me doubts whether some of this music is really worthy to be on the list. In spite of everything, I think Rolling Stone gets it right a lot in the areas where I have some knowledge and a host of opinions. They included and honored many of my favorite albums and artists. One pleasant surprise was their inclusion of one of my all time favorite albums, not even remotely connected to rock & roll, at number 447 “Getz/Gilberto”. I loved it back in the ‘60s and still do. It’s a super group of jazz artists, Stan Getz on Sax, Joao Gilberto on guitar and pianist Antonio Jobim who composed most of the songs.
The top 500 list is an excellent way to sample and choose from some of the best popular music of the last 6 decades. Here are a few albums that are not on Rolling Stone’s top 500 list, but would definitely be on mine: “Famous Blue Raincoat” Jennifer Warnes, “All My Life, The Best of Karla Bonoff”, “The Austin Sessions” Kris Kristofferson, “Carney” and “Retrospective” Leon Russell, “Blue River” Eric Anderson, “Mixed Bag” Richie Havens, “My Griffin is Gone” Hoyt Axton, “The Circle Game” Tom Rush, “Diamond Life” Sade, “Wildflowers” Judy Collins, “Genius + Soul=Jazz” and “Ray Sings, Basie Swings” Ray Charles (there are so many more great Ray Charles albums), and as long as they include Sinatra, “Sinatra at the Sands” & “The Best of the capitol Years” Frank Sinatra.
Just like Rolling Stone magazine, I too have left out a ton of great music.