RS 500 (Pt. 1: Intro)

From 2012 to 2016, I listened to all the albums on the 2012 revision of Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Albums of All Time list. It was an interesting experience. I discovered a bunch of new favorite albums and artists, helped me understand the history and odd stories of music, and got me listening to numerous artists and albums that I never would have thought of listening to otherwise.

My biggest regret? The fact that I didn’t document any specific thoughts on each of the albums. I did rate them on a half point 1 to 5 scale, and I was planning on doing a more data-centric project around a comprehensive data set I put together over many boring days at work, but just never got around to publishing it. With the release of an updated RS500 list containing over 150 new additions, I’m getting a chance to redeem myself.

Follow along on my journey by checking out this snazzy Google Sheet as I drive myself insane listening to the 2020 RS500 list. More to come.


#4: Songs in the Key of Life
Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder considered retiring from music and moving to Africa to help the children there after releasing a string of classic albums in the early 70s. Instead, he signed the largest music contract in history, gained full artistic freedom, and released this double album + EP package, Songs in the Key of Life, after taking only a one year break. This album displays all of Wonder’s sheer talent over 21 sprawling, funky tracks that only rarely drags because of extended track length. My personal opinion is that Innervisions is his true masterpiece, doing many of the same things that Key does in a lot shorter running time, so I’m a bit surprised that this one is Wonder’s top album on the list, but regardless, this is a great album.

Key Tracks: Sir Duke, I Wish, As, Saturn, Contusion
RS 2020: #4 // RS 2012: #57 (up 53)
My Rating: 4.5 (9/23/20) // 4.5 (3/2/15)


#346: AM
Arctic Monkeys

Seven years removed from their eternal debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, Alex Turner and crew had bounced around from rock sub-genre to sub-genre, looking more and more like they would become a relic of the past. They finally hit something with AM, a guitar heavy, riff-fueled album that’s heavily indebted to bands like Queens of the Stone Age and Black Sabbath and the production style of later Black Keys. As one of the last big critically and commercially successful guitar rock albums of the last twenty years, it’s probably deserving of being on this list at around this position, but I don’t think it holds a candle to their debut. What bothers me the most is that it sounds like they recycled the same guitar melody a few times during the course of the album with only very minor changes, which can make it hard to differentiate between songs, and definitely makes it a little boring sonically. Give me their debut (which was on the 2012 list, but oddly absent on this iteration) any day.

Key Tracks: R U Mine, One For the Road, No. 1 Party Anthem
RS 2020: #346 // RS 2012: N/A
My Rating: 3.5 (9/23/20) // 3.5 (1/9/14)


#484: Born This Way
Lady Gaga

No one was bigger than Lady Gaga in 2011. An inescapable force, every song Gaga released went top 10, every music video premiere was a cultural landmark, every appearance was an event. So, what do you do when you’re at the top? Put your face on a motorcycle, double down on the heavy Euro synths, and sing in German, of course. The crazy thing is that it all worked. Born This Way was the album that made people realize that she wasn’t just a flash in the pan, for all her quirks, she was absolutely brimming with talent. It’s not even her best album (most would agree that honor goes to The Fame Monster), so it’s inclusion on the RS list is a bit odd, but certainly not uncalled for because of it’s influence/how engrained it was in the mainstream. At the time of it’s release, I was definitely disappointed that it wasn’t as brilliant as The Fame or The Fame Monster, which probably led to a lower rating than I would give it now. On a separate note, there’s an interview that Gaga did with Anderson Cooper at the beginning of this era that I’d highly recommend checking out.

Key Tracks: Scheibe, The Edge of Glory, Highway Unicorn (Road to Love), Born This Way
RS 2020: #484 // RS 2012: N/A
My Rating: 3.5 (9/23/20) // 2.5 (10/8/12)


#52: Station to Station
David Bowie

A transitional album in Bowie’s long and storied career, Station to Station marked the end of Bowie’s glam/funk obsession, marked the appearance of the Thin White Duke, and served as the transition into his Berlin Trilogy of albums. Station to Station is memorable to most for how unique it sounds, but wasn’t to it’s creator as Bowie oft mentioned that he had no memory of the sessions for this album because of how much cocaine he was doing at the time. Bowie may not remember much – but others do, citing that Bowie was in a state of “psychic terror” living in Los Angeles during the Station to Station sessions, claiming to see body parts flying past his window, receiving secret messages, strongly believing in witchcraft and the occult. With that in mind, it’s not difficult to see how Station to Station could have easily been a flop and ruined Bowie’s career since it’s a little difficult to unwind and so different from what he had done. Instead, it was a critical and commercial success, leading to a creative rejuvenation. Most of what Bowie created from Hunky Dory to Scary Monsters was groundbreaking, but I’m not sure if I would place this album even at the top of my Bowie list. An interesting listen for sure, and certainly deserving of being on the RS500 list – but facts are facts; this is not the 2nd best Bowie album, and not a near top 50 album of all time.

Key Tracks: TVC15, Golden Years, Word on a Wing
RS 2020: #52 // RS 2012: #324
My Rating: 3.5 (9/23/20) // 4.0 (12/26/13)


#165: Murmur
R.E.M.

This album is one of my favorite discoveries from the first time I went through this list. Long regarded as the first signpost of the alternative movement of the following decade-plus, Murmur is an album that was imitated numerous times, but never duplicated. The way that the jangling electric guitar and folky acoustic guitars shine a light through the dark web of Michael Stipe’s cryptic, mumbled lyrics are the perfect contrast of sounds and emotions, giving this album a feeling of timelessness. Combine that with the fact that all the songs are devastatingly catchy, Murmur, alongside their debut EP, Chronic Town, are must listens for anyone remotely interested in any form of rock or alternative music.

Key Tracks: Sitting Still, Shaking Through, Catapult, Radio Free Europe, West of the Fields
RS 2020: #165 // RS 2012: #197
My Rating: 5.0 (9/29/20) // 4.5 (4/27/14)

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