Critical 10: WTF Moments from Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums
Crowd-sourced head scratchers.
This week, Rolling Stone updated its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, an expansion of a list it first published to celebrate the magazine's 20th birthday in 1987. Now including albums in all musical genres and featuring contributions not just from critics, but from musicians and industry folks, it's a quirkier list than it used to be. But some of its quirks make less sense than others, like these peculiar choices. It's not that we don't think these are great albums (well, we have our doubts about a couple of them...), it's just that for a variety of reasons, we think their placement on the list is a bit odd.
39: The Beatles -- Please Please Me
Don't get us wrong: there's not a single Beatles album that isn't worth owning, and this debut album -- recorded more or less live in the studio, most of it in a single day -- still sounds remarkably fresh. But its mix of American R&B covers and early Lennon-McCartney originals would soon be superseded in both concept and execution.
Ranked higher than: Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (43), Patti Smith's Horses (44), John Coltrane's A Love Supreme (47)
56: Elvis Presley -- Elvis Presley
Presley quite correctly scores high with the Sunrise compilation, gathering all of his epochal recordings for Sun Records; these will always be his finest hour. Five leftovers from the Sun sessions pad out this debut album, which otherwise consists largely of covers of recent hits (his ex-labelmate Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes," Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman," Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti"), none of which come close to the originals. Sadly, however, this is actually one of the big El's stronger LPs: for the remainder of his career, all of his albums would be heavily larded with tossed-off filler.
Ranked higher than: Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life (57), The Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet (58) and Sticky Fingers (64), Neil Young's After the Gold Rush (74)
112: The Mamas and the Papas -- If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears
Okay, so The Mamas and the Papas are an often-underrated part of the movement from folk-rock into psychedelia, and it's undeniable that the Monterey Pop festival organized by John Phillips and manager/producer Lou Adler was indeed an Age of Aquarius landmark. But this album consists of three killer singles ("California Dreamin'," "Monday Monday" and "Go Where You Wanna Go"), four less-distinguished originals, and five covers that range from okay (The Beatles' "I Call Your Name") to awful (Ramsey Lewis' "The In Crowd"). It doesn't belong on the list at all, and it certainly doesn't deserve to outrank any album by their L.A. folk-rock compatriots The Byrds.
Ranked higher than: The Who Sell Out (115), The Stooges' Raw Power (128), Television's Marquee Moon (130)
142: Phil Spector -- A Christmas Gift to You
Okay, it's one of the few truly essential Christmas albums. But this is completely superfluous to requirements: A Christmas Gift to You is already included in its entirety on the essential box set Phil Spector: Back to Mono (1958-69), which is already placed at #65. This doesn't need to be here on its own.
Ranked higher than: Steely Dan's Aja (145), The Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique (156), Joy Division's Closer (157)
175: The Carpenters -- Close to You
I actually love The Carpenters: I was a little kid during the '70s, with two older sisters, so Karen Carpenter's voice is ingrained in my DNA. But #175 is suspiciously high, and why this particular album? It does feature the title track and Paul Williams' "We've Only Just Begun," two of the siblings' finest singles, but that's just it: The Carpenters were a singles act, and since artists like Madonna, ABBA and Neil Diamond are represented by compilations, throw on the stone classic The Singles: 1969-73. If not, 1972's A Song for You is probably their strongest album as a whole.
Ranked higher than: Fleetwood Mac's Fleetwood Mac (182), Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger (183), The Stooges' The Stooges (185)
186: Sly and the Family Stone -- Fresh
Three of Sly Stone's earlier albums -- There's a Riot Goin' On, Stand and the indispensible Greatest Hits (worth the cost if only for "Hot Fun in the Summertime" and "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," stand-alone singles that for years were available nowhere else) -- are represented higher in the countdown, as they should be. But although Sly would go on to release far worse albums as he struggled against his drug dependency and mental problems, Fresh marks the first time he was following trends (particularly George Clinton's P-Funk trips) instead of setting them, and it's not worthy of inclusion here.
Ranked higher than: Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era (196), R.E.M.'s Murmur (197), Prince's Dirty Mind (206)
189: Quicksilver Messenger Service -- Happy Trails
The classic Wild West-pastiche cover painting by George Hunter (a San Francisco artist who co-founded The Charlatans, the first Bay Area psych band of note) is awesome, but let's be clear here: this is a 1969 live album where the entirety of side one is a 25-minute live jam on Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love." There's a freakin' bass solo, people. As San Francisco hippie rock goes, there's much, much worse, of course, but there's also much better: either Anthem of the Sun or Aoxomoxoa by the Grateful Dead, or any of the first three Steve Miller Band records, for example.
Ranked higher than: Neil Young's Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (210), Pavement's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (212), The New York Dolls' New York Dolls (215)
213: The Rolling Stones -- Tattoo You
Massively overhyped at the time of its release, simply because it was better than the awful Emotional Rescue, Tattoo You has not aged well at all. Literally pieced together hurriedly out of outtakes dating all the way back to the Goats Head Soup era so that the band would have new product to flog for its 1981 world tour, the album has a couple of decent singles ("Start Me Up," "Waiting on a Friend") and a ridiculous amount of filler.
Ranked higher than: The Smiths' The Queen Is Dead (218), My Bloody Valentine's Loveless (221), Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska (226)
259: Janet Jackson -- The Velvet Rope
This is perhaps the biggest head-scratcher on the entire list. Jackson was a solid singles artist for years, and Control remains the best mid-80s Prince album that Prince had nothing to do with, but The Velvet Rope is pretentious, overlong, banal and overproduced. Other than "Together Again," it doesn't even contain any particularly great singles.
Ranked higher than: Crosby Stills and Nash's Crosby Stills and Nash (262), The Jesus and Mary Chain's Psychocandy (269), The Beach Boys' Today! (271)
313: Nirvana -- Unplugged in New York
So it's the last hurrah of Kurt Cobain and it introduced a generation of kids who had only bought Nevermind to the best songs from Bleach, and it openly (and without attribution) lifted Richard Barone's Cool Blue Halo arrangement of David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World" right down to hiring the same cello player (Jane Scarpantoni) to re-create her part. But it's still a curio at best.
Ranked higher than: The Velvet Underground's The Velvet Underground (316), Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation (328), Buzzcocks' Singles Going Steady (360)