Written by: Ryaan Shaikh, LRR 2021 Nonfiction Panelist
If you’re a music lover or a Motown maniac then you shouldn’t be surprised that What’s Going On was Rolling Stone’s choice for greatest album of all time. Last year, the reporters and editors at Rolling Stone released their picks for the top 500 albums of all time. Before reading the article, I guessed what LPs would make up the top 10 slots. I thought to myself, “definitely Abbey Road or Sgt. Pep’s for a Beatles inclusion, The Chronic for a 90s hip hop pick, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and maybe Kind of Blue for the jazz choice.” To my surprise, none of my picks held the number one slot.
I thought for sure they would choose a Beatles album for first like they have for years prior. In a previous installment of Rolling Stone from 2003, W.G.O was ranked number six and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the number one pick. So, what warranted the change? What’s going on?
Initially I only knew the title track of the album, so I got in my Subaru Crosstrek and listened to the LP from start to finish on my way to work. The album is from the point of view of a Vietnam War veteran returning home to see the widespread suffering, division, and poverty throughout the United States.
Gaye calls Americans to come together and love one another. In “What’s Happening Brother” he points out and asks, “War is hell, when will it end? When will people start getting together again?” (Marvin). The tracks are groovy and have roots in gospel, blues, and jazz. One of the most notable features of the album is how each song bleeds into the next. The piece was meant to be listened to in one sitting and digested entirely. Needless to say, I was blown away.
Even though the album was incredible, it still does not explain how it moved from sixth to first on the top 500 list. After scrutinizing both lists and talking about it with my friends, I realized why Rolling Stone amended their ranking: context.
The original 2003 list (which got amended in 2009 and 2012) included only two albums from people of color in the top 50 (Rolling Stone 500). While this flew under the radar in 2003, if Rolling Stone were to publish the original 2003 list for the 2020 edition, heads would roll. The updated 2020 list is full of albums from marginalized communities. Although one could say Rolling Stone only put What’s Going On in the number one slot in order to make up for their sketchy 2003 list, I think that is unfair and glosses over the positive attributes of the album.
I recommend you all to listen to both What’s Going On and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band front to back and judge them for yourself. I am solidly on team Marvin Gaye but do see merit in team Beatles. Which do you think is the best album of all time?