Thursday, July 14, 2022

Emily Listens to the Rolling Stone Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time - Entries 1-10

Making comics, I spend a lot of time drawing. And if there's one thing I am always in search of, it's more music to listen to while drawing. Recently, I decided to go through the most recent iteration of Rolling Stone Magazine's Top 500 Greatest Albums of all Time. And I also figured I should record my thoughts on them!

Some caveats:
1) I have realistic expectations and do not plan on actually listening to all 500. That's why I started at number one and am working my way backwards. Because life is too short to count this list down. Rolling Stone will probably update the list again before I get anywhere near the end. I'm listening to their "top" albums first, so it's all downhill from here.

2) I'm not reviewing the entries with "stars" or ranking them against each other. Choosing a number 1 or 8 or 326 all feels rather arbitrary to me here. This list is drawing from a very wide range of musical tastes and I salute Rolling Stone for trying to even organize these entries against each other. Who am I to say how Joni Mitchell stacks up against Kendrick Lamar? Really, I just wanted an excuse to listen to some classic albums and make myself learn the context around some of the most famous songs of all time. I'm doing my best to appreciate each album on its own merits, rather than judge it against my taste, because...

3) As I listen to this list, I'm realizing I have terrible taste in music. I know nothing! I am a pleb! Take nothing I say seriously!

Okay, now that this is out of the way, here are the entries I listened to recently and my thoughts on them! 

1) What's Going On (Marvin Gaye)
This was just so very good and chill and thoughtful and I really liked it. I honestly didn't think I would recognize very many songs off of it, but a lot of the album was familiar. It flowed great, as is usually the case with concept albums. I do love a good concept album. There's something bittersweet about listening to this album 50 years after it came out and all the topical political commentary still being accurate and timely. Additionally, Marvin Gaye has such a good voice. When I think of soul music, I think of this sound. My favourite song was probably the title track, but the whole album was great. I can see why this ended up being the consensus choice for the Rolling Stone voters, because it's just so darn pleasant, but with enough depth to make you feel like you're doing something intelligent while listening to it. That's a hard balancing act. Is it really the greatest album of all time? Maybe. At the very least, it's an album I have a hard time picturing anyone disliking, which can't be said of some of the rest of the top ten, which are inherently more polarizing.

2) Pet Sounds (The Beach Boys)
I've always loved The Beach Boys and this is them at their weirdest and most experimental, which is great! I don't know if there is an instrument in existence Brian Wilson didn't shove onto this record. The orchestration is so strange, intricate and gorgeous, especially on the deep cuts. The singles are a bit more like the typical surf rock the band made in earlier days (Sloop John B is on this album) but one of the group's very best singles - God Only Knows - is also here and that one better reflects the general trippiness of Pet Sounds. Of the album only tracks, I really liked That's Not Me and I Just Wasn't Made For These Times. They had some surprising lyrical depth and reminded me of a lot of great indie pop of today. You can really see the roots that the indie rock scene has in Pet Sounds and I feel comfortable saying this album is just as influential and important as people make it out to be. Also, while lots of artists on this list are amazing at writing instrumentation, I don't think anyone ever beat the Beach Boys at vocal harmonies. The arrangements they come up with are just insanely complex, interesting and beautiful.

3) Blue (Joni Mitchell)
My main exposure to Joni Mitchell growing up is that one Christmas song she wrote and GUYS! That song is on here! Did it make me love Blue more? OF COURSE IT DID! CHRISTMAS!!!! In all seriousness, this was probably my favourite listen of the top ten, because I am a sucker for folksy rock. All the better if it's sung by a light, lilting soprano. I have serious vocal envy of Joni Mitchell. She's so clear and controlled up high. Fewer of the songs jumped out to me as stand-out singles. Aside from River, of course. She clearly should have mentioned Christmas more often. But that's not a knock against the album. Sonically, it's wonderfully cohesive, due to none of the songs being obtrusive, and that makes it great for vibing along to. I definitely want to give this one another listen soon. Her lyrics are wonderfully tender and poetic and I know I'll have more distinct favorites once I revisit the album.

4) Songs in the Key of Life (Stevie Wonder)
Stevie Wonder is an artist who I respect tremendously, even if he isn't always my cup of tea. Music aside, he's just such an excellent human being. Actually, listening to this I started to realize that one of the reasons Stevie Wonder isn't always my favourite musician is because he really does branch out stylistically all over the map. That being said, this album definitely shares a dominant sound and feel. One of the reoccurring themes in these top albums I've noticed is lush, complex orchestration and Stevie Wonder really shows off his chops here. Listening to the album all at once, Isn't She Lovely kind of shocked me with how charming it is. Like, I've heard it before, but it was somehow even better here. Also: I will never stop being surprised when someone fires up Pastime Paradise and I am forcibly reminded that it was sampled in Gangster Paradise. I forget! All the time! Those two were probably my favourite tracks here, though there are plenty of other stand-outs too.

5) Abbey Road (The Beatles)
THE BEATLES!!!! I mean, what is there to say? The Beatles are amazing and this album was too. This album felt almost like the inverse of Blue - every song was iconic and while they went well together, they also differed from each other a fair bit, making this album a less consistent experience than any of the others before it. Even Songs in the Key of Life had a permeating Stevie-ness about it. Maybe it's because this album came late in the Beatles career and all four of them were now competing for creative direction of the band that the songs all sound so different. Octopus's Garden is nothing like Because which is nothing like Here Comes the Sun which is nothing like Maxwell's Silver Hammer. I loved all of those, especially Because, but due to nostalgia, my favourite on the album was still Something. It's just one of the most romantic songs of all time.

6) Nevermind (Nirvana)
Full disclosure... I have always struggled with Nirvana. I'm not the biggest fan of shouty singing and Kurt Cobain is shouting in full fury here. So I was pleasantly surprised by how much I actually DID enjoy the album. I think approaching it as a whole helped. Moving between Nirvana and other, more melodic bands on a mixed playlist always feels jarring to me, but here, it felt like I could enter Cobain's world and just hang out while his band performed. And my gosh, while I might not care much for Cobain as a singer, as a guitarist and composure he's incredible. His instrumentation choices are just so fascinating and surprising. (Side note: I know Cobain's vocal performance is intentional and he could sound "prettier" if he wanted to, and he clearly doesn't. Stylistically, I'll even grant it's the right choice. I just have a bias towards clear diction and musical theatre jazz hands. SUE ME!) Also, while I haven't always been the biggest Nirvana fan, I do like the Foo Fighters and Dave Grohl's drumming is top tier on this album. Sometimes I found myself just listening to that. Best song is Smells Like Teen Spirit, because I am basic and the intro drums are so cool. Shout out also to Breed, which I hadn't heard before doing this listen and really liked.

7) Rumors (Fleetwood Mac)
And here we reach the first album I actually owned/listened to in its entirety BEFORE doing this challenge. What can I say? I like folksy rock. I honestly have a hard time judging this one because I listened to it so many times while in high school. That opening track is very good for walking at a good clip and I have tons of memories of using it to walk to school quickly. The whole experience of listening to Rumors is rife with nostalgia. Still, that does mean that I love it. Some of the songs on this album are among my all time favs, including Dreams, Songbird and The Chain. Also, it's been a while since I listened to the whole album and I forgot how good Gold Dust Woman is. Really, the lesson from this is that Stevie Nicks is a legend and every one of her songs is staggeringly awesome. Some of the other tracks strike me as... less good? Or at the very least I have to be in the right mood for them. Like, Don't Stop can get kind of annoying in it's up tempo perkiness. Unless you're trying to walk to high school quickly, then it's perfect.

8) Purple Rain (Prince and the Revolution)
Going through the top ten, I was most nervous about the Nirvana and Stevie Wonder albums. I knew I didn't always vibe with their music and was worried I would sound like an ignorant toad talking about them. But both those artists pleasantly surprised me and I felt like I walked away with a better appreciation for them. All of this is to say that I was not prepared to be blindsided by Purple Rain, because I can now throw my arms wide and say with great confidence, "I DO NOT UNDERSTAND PRINCE!" I'm still a bit confused because up until this point, I had liked every Prince song I had heard. Now I'm realizing his album cuts and his singles aren't exactly the same thing. Going into this album, I loved both When Doves Cry and the title track and coming out... those are still my favorites! I also now have an active dislike for Darling Nikki. As for positives, I did enjoy a lot of the instrumental sections of the songs on Purple Rain and I wonder if I would prefer some of Princes' more instrument heavy albums. Also, while I eventually could get behind Kurt Cobain's screaming, Prince's generally pulled me out. As Prince himself asks, why DO we scream at each other? He poses the question, but I'm not sure he has the answer. In all fairness, I did enjoy the second half of the album more than the first and maybe that was me finally getting into the spirit of the synthesizers and big, bombastic 80s production. Growing up in the 90s, this was 100% the sound I pictured when I thought of 80s music and since it was the 90s, the 80s were impossibly uncool to me as a child. So maybe that's coloring my perception of this one too. Do I have any big Prince fans in my life? I would love to hear you talk about what you love about him, because he's clearly talented, even if he's making artistic choices I don't appreciate. Ugh, I feel so bad about this one. I did you dirty, Prince.

9) Blood on the Tracks (Bob Dylan)
Bob Dylan is known for having dipped into multiple genres over the course of his career, yet I think if you were to average all of that out and distill it down to some "stereotypical Bob Dylan" sound, this album would pop out. I almost don't know how else to describe it. It's folksy, obviously. But beyond that, it's just so... Bob Dylan. Lots of long, rambling songs with simple chord patterns and lyrics that are hard to grab all of on a first listen. I probably spent more time googling lyrics for this album than any of the others. Appreciating Dylan is often more about appreciating poetry than it is about the full musical experience. And don't get me wrong, I like Dylan and I liked this album. But it felt like spoken word poetry undercut with guitar quite often, rather than something I would return to when I want MUSIC in my life. I'll be honest, I don't think this would have been my pick for Dylan's top album and looking at Rolling Stone's write up about it, I think the one reason this album edged out some of his others was because the voting body was real excited about his raw, emotional lyrics detailing the end of his marriage. And that's also probably why I didn't resonate as strongly with it. "Wow, I'm so sad my marriage is ending because I had an affair," is one of the great clichés of literary fiction and I make fun of it with my fellow writing friends quite often. Of course Dylan's version of the infidelity plot is a cut above the rest, but it's also just not a story I care a lot about particularly. You did this to yourself, my guy. Even so, this is Bob Dylan. He's going to get your feelings at least a couple times. Stand-out songs include You're Gonna Make me Lonesome When You Go and If You See Her, Say Hello.

10) The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Lauryn Hill)
I was super excited going into this album. I'm dismally undereducated in hip-hop and rap, so this being the highest ranking album from those genres perked my interest. I knew just one Lauryn Hill song - Doo Wop (That Thing) - but I really liked that song, so I came in with high hopes. On top of it, this album pops up all over the place when people talk about what they think are the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. It's not just Rolling Stone going to bat for this one. And all I can say is... OH MY HECK THIS WAS WORTH THE HYPE!!!! Like, wow. I get it. I get why everyone is devastated Lauryn Hill never released a second album. This album was just so... so FUN. It's fun, it's smart, it's engaging. Lauryn's voice is gorgeous and gentle when she needs it to be and powerfully soaring when the mood calls for it. Songs like Zion made me tear up, but then she'll lay down something like Doo Wop and her rap will simultaneously feel so sharp and flow like water. She blends her styles perfectly. This album is also such an amazing genre mash-up. Like many of the other top 10 albums, Hill isn't afraid of using almost any instrument that speaks to her on a particular track. Whether it's a flute solo that would be at home on a modern Lizzo track or Carlos Santana accompanying her with some serious guitar riffs, there's a taste of everything on here. I loved feeling like each track had the potential to surprise me with her next creative choice. Like, I don't know what else to say. Talking a little about the lyrical content, I loved the diversity of topics Hill pulled from, yet they all fit together into a whole too. The album title is well chosen and Hill uses the voices of school children to reinforce her themes. This album is the story of a girl growing up and learning (often the hard way) about life and love. I also loved her pulls from religious imagery. Forgive Them Father probably had my favourite lyrical interplay, but I'm excited to listen again to this whole album and catch more gems. There's just so much in here. I can absolutely understand why she's been so deeply influential.

1) Wow, Marvin Gaye is so good. I can't imagine anyone disliking this.
2) The Beach Boys sure are fun when they take lots of drugs.
3) Joni Mitchell is like a warm cup of tea on a cold night
4) A smorgasbord of Stevie Wonder - very nostalgic, very fun
5) The Beatles compete with each other to write the best song and weirdly, George wins this round
6) Nirvana sounds better when you listen to nothing but Nirvana
7) Fleetwood Mac makes their personal lives falling apart sound awesome
8) STOP PRINCE! STOP! Doves are crying, you should stop.
9) Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan, I guess.
10) Yes, Lauryn Hill is THAT good


  1. This is such a neat project, and I loved reading your reviews! You are always so well spoken 💕 Trust me, I'm not educated in a wide variety of music either, so now I have some new ideas for music. I'm really excited to listen to Lauryn, that sounds like my cup of tea. And I really should own a Beatles album (I know, I know, SOME people would disown me for this 🤦‍♀️)

    One question - how do you pay for all this music? Spotify?

    Love your rapid fire list at the end. So helpful for a quick overview! (And you made me laugh 😆)

    1. As you guessed, I'm streaming rather than buying these albums. I happen to use YouTube Music rather than Spotify, but both will work, of course. I think Spotify lets you listen to albums for free without a subscription, so it's probably the best one. I keep meaning to change over, but all my playlists are saved on YouTube Music and I don't want to copy them all over, lol!

      And if it's any consolation, the only Beatles album I owned growing up was a Greatest Hits album, so I get it! And now everything is just so accessible, I don't really buy music much anymore. Just download and pay my subscription fees.

      And yes! You should totally check out Lauryn Hill! I feel like she's a really good entry point for those of us who didn't grow up with a lot of hip-hop, since she uses so many pop song samples and retro stylings in her music.

  2. Huge Beach Boys fan here. If you think Pet Sounds is their weirdest or most experimental, hold my surf wax. I've got stuff to share with you. By the way, Pet Sounds and Dylan's Blonde on Blonde are two of my top three albums of all time. l'll let you guess the third.

    1. I love the Beach Boys so much! And I certainly have heard some of their later stuff that got very, very odd. Pet Sounds is a nice balance of that and their earlier surf rock.