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Sunday, October 25, 2020

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Music Mondays: Rolling Stone’s New 500

<p><em>Graphic by YounHee Oh, The Collegian</em></p>

Graphic by YounHee Oh, The Collegian

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.

When I was in middle school, the original Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums list was my music encyclopedia. This was around when Spotify first began, which changed the way I discovered music away from singles I found on Pandora radio stations or YouTube algorithm suggestions toward a more libertarian experience. I could listen to nearly anything I wanted (except for the Beatles for a while) and dealt with a few ads per hour of streaming. 

Spotify was the greatest invention that changed how I was able to consume music, making it extremely cheap and easy to access as compared to iTunes purchases or YouTube searches. But my guide through the mass library of Spotify was first Rolling Stone and its 2012 update to the list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. (The 2012 update mostly just reordered some albums but did not fundamentally change the original 2003 list.)

The title alone was too enticing to ignore for a novice music nerd, and I originally set out to listen to and rate every one of those 500 albums. I will spare you of those old reviews in which I thought James Brown tried too hard on stage and the Velvet Underground stunk because it only sang about drugs. But I was incredibly invested in the idea of a musical canon.

And the list itself back then was specific to the tastes and experiences of those who worked at Rolling Stone. It skewed heavily toward white male artists and records released when baby boomers were coming of age. For example, there were four Beatles albums just in the top 10, and there were only two artists or bands featuring female singers in the top 30 (none in the top 20). 

It was very Rolling Stone, and it was an introduction to music that encouraged my already learned rockism and penchant toward older, ostensibly alternative art. Strangely, the 2012 list also allowed for greatest hits compilations and live albums rather than sticking to studio recordings. Most of the compilations Rolling Stone chose were from Black artists, such as Al Green and Ray Charles, which to me also discredits those artist's ability to craft a studio album in the same way that Led Zeppelin or The Who did. This is all to say the 2003 and 2012 versions of this exercise were quite dated, if not just disrespectful, to a diverse and complex history of popular music over the previous 60 or so years.

The 2020 version of the list, just released last week, has an incredibly diverse set of voters (and Rolling Stone actually let us see who voted this time). They built the list again from scratch, rather than just moving a few pieces around like in 2012. 

I don't think it's very interesting to type out an argument for why "Funeral" by Arcade Fire should be higher than "Fine Line" by Harry Styles (though quite a choice to put something from 2019 on the list above a beloved indie rock classic!). The 2020 list as a whole shows greater racial and gender diversity, but those changes are, I think, also representative of how younger generations think about music more broadly. 

Voters for the 2020 list included high profile artists, critics, producers and other people mostly inside the music industry. Beyonce voted. So did Billie Eilish and Stevie Nicks, and even my guy David Prowse from Japandroids. Rolling Stone clearly enlisted a group of people with a wide age range, diversity of musical style and even varying levels of fame and success. 

Overall, the list favors more recent albums much more than last time, which one can see by looking at the top 20 or so, which includes "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" (1998), "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" (2010) and "To Pimp a Butterfly" (2015). All those entries are hip hop records made by Black artists, and the 2012 list had zero such albums in its top 20.

Hip hop for a long time now has become the most dominant force in popular music, and it's clearly gained respect across a broad selection of these voters. But this is all also just really obvious. You can't make a list — a canon — that attempts to be universal and comprehensive without a lot of hip hop, without a lot of Black artists in particular, and without a lot more women than before. 

There are still fewer than 10 female-fronted records in the top 50, but at this point this reveals more about the nature of the music recording industry over the last 70 or so years than it does about the quality of female-helmed albums or even about the voting constituency this time around. If Rolling Stone tries this again in 20 more years, everything just keeps evening out, I would guess. 

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You can find every possible take about this list too. People are still upset that "Dark Side of the Moon" (55) isn't higher. They're afraid Rolling Stone has sold out to liberals or something by favoring Prince and Lauryn Hill over, uh, The Rolling Stones. It's a little silly to quibble over the list's particulars, and if anything this list doesn't really have enough surprises.

It's a re-canonization that doesn't really make much of a strong statement. It lacks any interesting idiosyncratic Rolling Stone choices, like how last time around there were two blues compilations in the top 50, standing by Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters as totemic and influential artists in their own right. And it doesn't really lean that heavily in the opposite direction. Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West and Beyonce in the top 40 isn't changing the way anyone thinks about popular music in 2020. But Rolling Stone gets some credit for being right, at least.

Unfortunately, we can't see the individual ballots, which would've been much more engaging. Did Billie Eilish put anything released before 2007 in her top 50? What are Beyonce's 50 favorite albums? Does Big Boi dig any young rappers? Has John Cale listened to any new music since 1985?

We won't know any of that, it seems, but lists like these give us something to argue over and help us understand where things currently rest in some kind of popular consensus. And we should continue to challenge and think critically of any canon's oversights and biases. 

The next crop of 13-year-olds getting into music might use this list as a starting point, like I did, but I hope they quickly diverge, building their own tastes, allowing for brand new stuff to bowl them over. But also, go ahead and re-listen to "What's Going On." Rolling Stone probably got that one right. 

Contact opinions and columns editor Conner Evans at conner.evans@richmond.edu.

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