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.