Forget the end of live gigs and the subsequent emergence of virtual concerts. Forget the struggle of live performers and promoters. Even forget the sad death of big-name artists. In fact, forget the whole global pandemic full stop. For the big story that suddenly has everyone in the musical industry talking is Rolling Stone’s decision to remake its 500 greatest albums list from scratch.
Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time was originally published in a special edition of the magazine in 2003. Two years later there was an amended list in a related book, with the introduction by Steven van Zandt. And in 2012, there was a “slight update” of the top 500. Then on September 22, 2020, Rolling Stone astounded many in the music world by suddenly publishing a brand-new list.
The magazine justified the change in a short intro: “Over the years, it’s been the most widely read — and argued over — feature in the history of the magazine (last year, the RS 500 got over 63 million views on the site). But no list is definitive — tastes change, new genres emerge, the history of music keeps being rewritten. So we decided to remake our greatest albums list from scratch.”
It was based on a brand-new survey of a tabulated Top 50 Albums list from “more than 300 artists, producers, critics and musical industry figures (from radio programmers to label heads, like Atlantic Records CEO Craig Kallman).” The artists listed by Rolling Stone ranged from Beyonce and Taylor Swift to Gene Simmons and Stevie Nicks.
In justifying the new survey, Rolling Stone noted: “Of course, it could still be argued that embarking on a project like this is increasingly difficult in an era of streaming and fragmented taste. But that was part of what made rebooting the RS 500 fascinating and fun; 86 of the albums on the list are from this century, and 154 are new additions that weren’t on the 2003 or 2012 versions. The classics are still the classics, but the canon keeps getting bigger and better.”
The canon is certainly booming. In this vigilante age of equality, the list now includes more black and female artists than ever before, especially in the top 20. Rap albums figure three times as much as previous.
Spoiler Alert: The number one spot is now occupied by Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album What’s Going On. The earlier lists all had the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) at the top. Now it doesn’t even make the top 20, sitting at 24, and eclipsed by their own Revolver (1966) at number 11 and Abbey Road (1969) at 5.
So how do Americana artists rate in the RS list of the 500 Albums of All Time? The answer is both good and bad.
Those big-name crossover artists - like Bob Dylan, The Band, The Byrds, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young - who have a selection of albums which fit the Americana genre are, as expected, well represented.
Dylan leads the way, with eight albums, one behind the Beatles. Blood on the Tracks (1975), the breakup-inspired album which is long considered his finest work, sits at number nine. One of his entries, The Basement Tapes (1975), at 375, is a co-credit with The Band, who also make the 500 with two albums Music from Big Pink (1968) at 100 and The Band (1969) at 57.
The two albums by the Byrds which heralded country rock - Mr Tambourine Man (1965) and Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968) – sit at numbers 287 and 274. And the Flying Burrito Brothers – featuring Byrd refugees Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons – are placed on 462 with their 1969 debut album The Gilded Palace of Sin.
Bruce Springsteen’s quintessential acoustic classic Nebraska (1982) is one of five albums listed for The Boss. It sits at 150. Interestingly, there is no place for Springsteen and The Sessions Band’s folk tribute We Shall Overcome: The Session Sessions (2006) or its sensational live 2007 spinoff Live In Dublin.
Neil Young’s 1972 release Harvest, which spawned many covers by Americana artists, now sits at 72. And two of the finest Americana recordings – John Prine self-titled 1971 release and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1982) by Lucinda Williams - are rightfully included. John Prine is listed at 149 and Car Wheels sneaks into the top 100 at 98. Williams has another listing with her self-titled 1988 album at 426.
Current Americana poster boy Jason Isbell gets a look-in with Southeastern (2013) on 458. There is also recognition for Gillian Welch. Her David Rawlings-produced Time (The Revelator) album of 2001 placed 348. And Americana stalwarts Wilco are farther up the line on 225 with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002).
Sadly, there is no place for three of the finest interpreters of the various strands that constitute Americana music – Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle or Nancy Griffith. Each has stack of releases that would surely find a rightful list in the finest assortment of popular music across six decades.
Then again, the electorate selected to choose the new list did include the likes of Billie Eilish and Tierra Whack, who would both probably mutter in all honesty: “Emmylou who??”
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation