Recently, Rolling Stone magazine published a new list of what its writers, fielding nominations from various music-industry figures, deemed the top 500 albums of all time. It has published such lists before. But this one was an attempt not simply to update some older list but rather “to remake our greatest albums list from scratch.”
The result was significantly to modernize and diversify the list, reducing a heavy tilt toward ’60s and ’70s rock artists. This is not necessarily a misguided enterprise. As the list’s compilers note, “tastes change, new genres emerge, the history of music keeps being rewritten.” There is a legitimate argument to be made that the list’s prior incarnations favored and prioritized the cultural experience of Baby Boomers, as so much does.
But there are general quibbles worth raising, and specific ones. First, two in the general category. While it is true that the history of music keeps being rewritten, and much of musical preference is subjective, it is simply a fact that some albums and acts will always have the benefit of having been the ones who defined and perfected the experience of an album first, in a way that virtually all who followed draw from in one way or another. In my view, this honor belongs to The Beatles and to several of their albums. Sadly, the lads from Liverpool are treated somewhat poorly in this new list. Whereas in the 2003 list, the Fab Four had four albums in the top ten (including, at No. 1, the epochal Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band), now they must make do with one: Abbey Road, at a measly No. 5. I’m sure Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are now having to cry themselves to sleep on their beds made of money now.
The other general quibble gets at why this might have happened. Notably, Rolling Stone does not seem to have sold its new list as an attempt at improving “representation” or some such. For that, you have to go to Consequences of Sound, which complained about the original list’s having “just 12 artists of color and three women in its Top 50” and celebrated that the new list is now “much more diverse” and “no longer just white dudes who played rock music.” In a crude, reductive way, this is true of Rolling Stone‘s new list. But it’s a mistake to view it in that way, and would be a mistake if that’s how and why the effort was undertaken. The history of music may always be changing, but it should always be the music that we are caring about. Otherwise, this turns into a weird identitarian game: Should The Beatles get “points” for having been poor when they started? Should The Rolling Stones be demoted because Mick Jagger dropped out of the London School of Economics? Obviously we can’t completely ignore the identities of those who created these albums, but they deserve to be judged on the basis of the music they made. To the extent their identities should matter, it should be in how who they were enabled them to create better art, or to transcend the particular and to access the universal.
In this regard, I have some other specific judgments to make about the list. I’ve already noted my annoyance at The Beatles’ demotion. I am equally annoyed that this new list decided to resolve an ongoing dispute about the superiority of Sgt. Pepper’s or The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds resoundingly in the latter’s favor. I am not sure what about the passage of time, and the changing of musical tastes, has made critical consensus change the relative places of these two more than 50-year-old albums. I am more willing to accept the recent enshrinement of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 What’s Going On as, apparently, the best album of all time; it was already in the top ten. But if it is there, it deserves to be there not on the basis of the kind of woke reordering that Consequences of Sound would have, but on its own merit, which is, let us stipulate, considerable. To do otherwise is to descend into a contest in which the actual music in question is only secondary. It is already a fraught enterprise to rank the best 500 albums (supposedly in order, to boot). That approach would make it even more difficult — and even less revealing about what it purports to rank.