Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time

Rolling Stone magazine’s October 2020 issue features an all new list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.  It’s a fresh take on the magazine’s first such list published in 2003.  I pulled out my mint condition copy of that 2003 “Special Collector’s Issue” and sat down to compare the two lists.  And what an interesting comparison it is!

First observation: only two albums released since 2003 made it into the 2020 Top 20, and neither made the Top 10.  The 20th Century musical canon remains strong (further tidbits – only 17% of the albums on the 2020 list are from this century, and nearly one-third of the list is from the 70’s).  Second observation: despite the lack of infiltration of new albums into the Top 20, the 2020 versions of the Top 10 and Top 20 are almost unrecognizable from the 2003 versions.   Only two of the 2003 Top 10 are in the 2020 version, and only eight of the 2003 Top 20 survived to make the 2020 list.  So, why the wholesale reshuffling of the view of 20th Century music?  It’s all about the voters.

The group of voters Rolling Stone assembled to create the 2003 list was dominated by music critics, recording industry execs, broadcasters and the like.  Only 70 or so artists were polled, few of them women and few artists of color.   The 2020 voters included a much more diverse and inclusive pool of over 170 artists, and while older artists and non-artists were still represented, the new list creates a much more balanced picture of the breadth of musical influences that have shaped popular music.

The #1 album of all time?  What’s Goin’ On by Marvin Gaye.  The album was #6 on the 2003 list, behind no fewer than three Beatles albums. Here’s the famous lead single and title track.

Vaulting to #3 from a #30 ranking on the 2003 list is Joni Mitchell’s Blue. I’m not surprised that this masterpiece, which Rolling Stone characterizes as “a still-unmatched standard for confessional poetry in pop music”, got the recognition it deserves once more women singer-songwriters got the franchise.

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill had only been out for five years when the 2003 list was published, and slotted in at #312. The 2020 list places it at #10. Hill broke all sorts of records at the time with this, her first, solo album: most first week album sales by a female artist ever, most Grammy nominations (10) and awards (5) for a female artist in one night ever. Here’s the #1 single.

Holiday Music Buying – Best of the New and Old

Now that Thanksgiving is in the rear view mirror, it’s fair to turn attention to holiday gifts.   In this era of downloads and Pandora, if you still enjoy the quaint custom of giving music to family and friends, here are some recommendations from the albums we’ve featured over the past year.

Among new albums, Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories”, Jake Bugg’s eponymous April release, and “The Colonel & The Governor” by Tommy Emmanuel and Martin Taylor are three superb choices.

Daft Punk weaves together a wide variety of influences and pulls in musicians like Omar Hakim and Nile Rodgers to add touches that can’t be synthesized.  “Random Access Memories” needs to be played a few times through to fully appreciate, but the investment of time is well worth it.

Jake Bugg’s eponymous album features a great set of songs ranging from raw rockers to soft acoustic ballads.    And Bugg is not resting on his laurels – he’s just released his second album this year, “Shangri La”.

“The Colonel & The Governor” is an exceptional instrumental jazz album from start to finish.  Two masterful musicians, complementing each other beautifully, on classic songs.

If you’d like to dig back into history and help round out a friend’s collection of classic albums, “Getz/Gilberto”, the groundbreaking Bossa Nova album, “Blue” by Joni Mitchell, and Stevie Wonder’s “Inner Visions” can’t be beat.

“Getz/Gilberto” introduced America to “The Girl from Ipanema” and many other Bossa Nova classics.  The mellow voices of Joao and Astrud Gilberto combined with Getz’s breathy sax are as intoxicating today as they were fifty years ago.

Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” includes many of her classic tunes as well as lesser known gems.  It’s a perfect album from start to finish – no filler. “River” is worth adding to your play list of sad, sentimental Christmas songs.

Stevie Wonder is – well – Stevie Wonder, and in a career of brilliance “Inner Visions” may the best of the best. The first track, “Too High”, features his trusty harmonica work and a great bass hook.

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John Mayer, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young – Solo and Acoustic

The opening track on John Mayer’s folk-tinged 2012 album “Born and Raised” is titled “Queen of California”.  The lyrics reference “Looking for the sun that Neil Young hung / After the gold rush of 1971”.  And hoping “there’s another color waiting for me” he recalls that “Joni wrote ‘Blue’ in a house by the sea”.  Let John set it up for you, then catch a 1970 performance of “California” from Joni Mitchell’s 4th album “Blue”.

Neil Young certainly has plenty in his catalog since “After the Gold Rush”, but his next album “Harvest” contained his only #1 song “Heart of Gold”.  Hang in there while he fiddles around with his harmonicas.

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