The Rolling Stones Top 500 Albums
In the summer of 2016 as I started working fulltime as a software engineer I realized that I was spending huge chunks of my day listening to Spotify in order to concentrate and drown out conversations happening around the office. Devoting such large portion of the day to listening to music was not leaving enough time to construct playlists and I ended up listening to the same music over and over. Which seemed like a real waste. If I was going to spend so much time listening to music, aught it not be used to expose myself to previously undiscovered music.
In a previous life I had worked as a director, and selecting music was a key part of constructing a piece and communicating. As an artist, having a collection of citable resources on hand is a great help when attempting to establish a common language and tone across multiple departments. So rather than relying on my limited knowledge of recorded music, why not turn those hours of music into an opportunity to research and find deep cuts of artists and bands which could later be leveraged when there was limited time to pull out the appropriate resource track.
Initially I approached this project by listening through artists full discographies. This was a wonderful way to feel the way that an artist would evolve from album to album. Hearing thu sudden sonic break between Kanye West’s Graduation and 808s & Heartbreak or the steady evolution of Michael Jackson from a member of the Jackson 5 to a solo artist in quick succession allowed an understanding of an artists career trajectory that isn’t encapsulated by a baseline knowledge of greatest hits or listening to songs outside of their historic/sonic context.
The major drawback to this approach was that it often meant several days straight of listening to music that was within the same sonic wheelhouse. This proved to have strong diminishing returns in terms of how much I appreciated/enjoyed an artists music as a craving for something more varied grew all the stronger. So at the start of 2017 I decided to pivot from discographies to a more general overview of musical history. This would sacrifice the full historical/sonic understanding of a single artist in favor of a more general understanding of the musical landscape over the last 50 years. This would hopefully provide more hooks for future musical listening and open myself to discovering historically significant artists who I hadn’t come across before or devoted enough time to understand their broader cultural appeal.
Before the age of easy access to vast catalogs of music through services like spotify (my platform of choice) to attempt a listening goal like this would have required thousands of dollars, tons of trips to the store or to borrow material from friends, and the residue of the experiment both desired and undesired after it was all over. Instead, I was able to listen to 468 of the top 500 albums for less than $120. After this year of sonic exploration, I’d like to share some of my findings with you.
A Note on The List
The backbone of the musical literacy embarked on over the last year isThe Rolling Stones Top 500 Albums list. Since its original publication in 2003, and subsequent update in 2012, a number of criticisms have been leveled at the ranking, particularly with regards to its heavy anglo-centric and rock and roll bias at the expense of genres like rap, metal and world music. While these criticisms present valid concerns, any such ranking is highly subjective and biased by the creator’s background, exposure and goals of their list. I chose to use this list as the basis of my listening for two main reasons. Firstly, the number of criticisms leveled against it present an excellent opportunity to supplement the listening catalog after completing the core list. Articles which object to the list’s ranking of rap will often contain citations of great albums that might have been included, which makes the list a great scaffolding to build future knowledge on. Secondly, while the album is certainly heavily biased towards rock and roll over the last 40-50 years, that snapshot of a period of musical evolution provides a more consistent background to come to an understanding of the modern formation of the record, and how that has started to change in the age of iTunes and SoundCloud. One of my favorite experiences of listening through these albums in full was being able to sense an album drawing to a close without looking at the number of songs remaining. Many artists considered the flow from song to song in the same way that a director or playwright structures their work. While there are certainly other types of music that are underrepresented, in the hopes of understanding a certain modern understanding of the “record”, the rolling stones top 500 presents a compelling argument as the definitive guide.
Best Listening Album You May Never Have Heard Of: Proxima Estacion - Esperanza
Most Interesting Stitching: Anthem of the Sun
Artists Who Are Less Overrated Than I Thought
32 Albums Not Available On Spotify
464: Def Leppard, Hysteria
459: The Drifter’s, “Golden Hits”
438: The Cure, Boys Don’t Cry
421: The Best of Girl Groups Volume 1 and 2
377: John Lee Hooker Ultimate Collection
363: New Order, Substance
355: The Yardbirds, Having a rave up with the Yardbirds
349: Jay-Z, The Black Album
364: De La Soul, 3 Feet High and Rising
311: The Sun Records Collection
308: Frank Sinatra, Songs for Swingin Lovers!
278: Anthology of American Folk Music
252: Jay-Z, The Blueprint
250: Jay-Z, Reasonable Doubt
245: Jerry Lee Lewis, All Killer, No Filler
236: Jackie Wilson, Mr Excitement
235: Patsy Cline, The Ultimate Collection
232: The Kinks, The Kink Kronikles
224: The Neil Diamond Collection
198: Little Walter, “The best of”
196: Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the first Pschedelic Era, 1965-1968
187: Peter Gabriel - so
177: Funkadelic, One Nation Under a Groove
164: Linda Ronstadt, The Very Best of Linda Ronstadt
138: Dr Dre, “The Chronic”
124: Moby Grape, Moby Grape
105: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music
65: Phil Spector, “Back to Mono (1958-1969)”
60: Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, “Trout Mask Replica
54: Ray Charles, “The Birth of soul: The Complete Atlantic Recordings”
53: The Beatles, “Meet the Beatles”
11: Elvis, Elvis at Sun