The Guide #140: Why it doesn’t really matter if you disagree with Apple’s top 100 album list

<span>Lauryn Hill performs during The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill 25th anniversary tour in 2023. The album has topped Apple’s best-of list. </span><span>Photograph: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP</span>
Lauryn Hill performs during The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill 25th anniversary tour in 2023. The album has topped Apple’s best-of list. Photograph: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

Noticing an absence of best-of lists from media publications, record stores and the like these days, those disruptors at Apple Music have taken it upon themselves to compile a list of their 100 best albums of all time, the top 10 of which was shared on Wednesday. Created “editorially”, without taking into account streaming numbers (because who wants an all-Sheeran-Swift top 10), theirs is a ranking determined by Apple’s own team of experts and critics as well as songwriters, producers, industry professionals and artists including Pharrell Williams, Charli XCX, Nile Rodgers and J Balvin. Surely this carefully assembled team would put together a list that everyone could get on board with?

Well, obviously not. Apple’s list has been received about as well as its 2014 decision to “gift” (read: forcibly upload) a U2 album to the libraries of unsuspecting iTunes users. Social media is awash with screengrabs of albums deemed undeserving of their placing (“send [insert artist here] to the Hague!”), clickbait-y articles have been written about how outraged fans are about the artists that Apple has cruelly snubbed. And the dreaded phrase “recency bias” has been liberally used in response to the number of 21st-century albums that made the cut.

Apple’s top 100 is certainly baffling in places. Big artists – Johnny Cash, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Who – are absent. Whole genres are overlooked, notably country, which is solely represented by Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour – despite country being more relevant to popular music than it has been in decades. There’s something quite whiplash-inducing about some of the placings, too: Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP (which really has not aged well) directly above Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush; Pet Sounds only just squeaking the top 20. Admittedly, it is quite amusing to see the Eagles’ Hotel California – an album that always seems to get a place on these all time lists no matter how much tastes change – in at 99, one place below Travis Scott’s Astroworld (that should get the Classic Rock magazine readers frothing). And yes, a lot of it does feel very recent: 17 albums on the list hail from the 2010s, with only 10 coming from the 60s, and just a single album from the 50s. And there are three albums from the 2020s – a decade that we’re only four years into, let alone having enough time to process.

Still, the point of these lists is often to upturn the codified canon, which in the case of pop music tends towards the white and guitar-based. And the Apple 100 does manage that. Rap – a genre that has now been around for half a century, has evolved and shape-shifted so much in that time, and yet is often condescended to when it comes to these lists – is the most represented genre on the list. Artists that might have once been ignored or dismissed as trivial – George Michael, Usher, even Rage Against the Machine – have been given due reappraisal. And the No 1 pick, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, is exactly the sort of album that you want at the top of an all-time list: regarded as a classic by many but rarely celebrated as such, and out-of-leftfield enough to stir spirited debate.

What’s more, these all-time rundowns always tend to have a bit of recency bias about them. The earliest of them, in the 1970s, when the idea of all-time lists first seems to have become popular, were geared towards the contemporary – inevitably really, given the relative newness at the time of an album as an artwork in itself rather than a collection of songs (for example, all the top 10 of NME’s first all-time list, in 1974, were released within 10 years of the list itself being published). But even a few decades later, people were still canonising relatively new releases: when the Guardian published a 100 best albums ever list in 1997, we had Nirvana’s Nevermind in with a bullet at No 4, despite it only having been released six years before. And why not? After all, some albums – Pet Sounds or Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – are pretty much regarded as all-timers as soon as they’re released. Leaving them off a list simply because it’s “too soon” seems self-defeating.

A lot of the records in Apple Music’s top 100 will slip out of the next list, whenever it arrives. But that’s sort of the point: pop tastes are shifting and unpredictable, and the best lists reflect those shifts while still recognising greatness in its own right. Better that, surely, than some unchanging tablet of stone, passed down from generation to generation. There’s an argument that this is happening in TV, where a combination of The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad and Mad Men seem destined to sit atop all-time lists until the sun crashes into the earth. (Granted, all those shows are masterpieces that probably deserve to top all time lists til the sun crashes into the earth, but still it would be nice to see a bit of a shake-up.)

Of course, the big unsaid thing about Apple Music’s list is that it is celebrating the very thing it has come to bury. Along with Spotify and the other music streamers, they have done more than most to undermine the idea of the album as an artistic statement. In 2024 the individual track is king and playlists have long since surpassed albums in defining how people listen to music. The album will never die, but its primacy in pop music is definitely threatened. Which, along with everything else, might mean fewer “greatest of all time” lists for us all to get angry about.

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