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Business News/ Companies / News/  Apple says these are the 100 best albums. Even if you think different.
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Apple says these are the 100 best albums. Even if you think different.

wsj

Why did a trillion-dollar company make a music list that would make people lose their minds?

In this Feb. 1, 1993, file photo, Michael Jackson performs during the halftime show at the Super Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. Apple Music announced their 100 greatest albums of all time and Jackson's 1982 Thriller came in second on the list. (File Photo: AP)Premium
In this Feb. 1, 1993, file photo, Michael Jackson performs during the halftime show at the Super Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. Apple Music announced their 100 greatest albums of all time and Jackson's 1982 Thriller came in second on the list. (File Photo: AP)

For the past year, a team inside one of the world’s most valuable companies worked on a secret project. It wasn’t a phone, a tablet or a computer. It wasn’t a mixed-reality headset , either. In fact, it wasn’t a device of any kind.

Apple staked its reputation on developing something else that seemed almost impossibly daunting.

A list of music.

This week, Apple Music unveiled a provocative ranking of the 100 best albums ever made , as determined not by streaming data, record sales or the algorithms that rule our lives, but by a metric of quality that sounds almost radical these days: human judgment.

Apple enlisted about 250 employees, artists and industry executives to vote on the albums, and they came up with a list unlike the many others that already existed.

Those lists tend to reward music that has been revered for decades. The idea behind this one was to recognize more contemporary albums that Apple’s voters argue have already earned their place in the music canon. They may not be as old as the classic records, but Apple believes they will be remembered as classics decades from now.

“It’s a twist on the list," said Zane Lowe, Apple Music’s global creative director.

Neil Young can be found between 50 Cent and Eminem. Carole King is ahead of Nas but behind Wu-Tang Clan. Kraftwerk is sandwiched by SZA and NWA. There is one album from the Rolling Stones but two from Radiohead—and more records from the 2010s than the 1960s.

The list includes Prince, Lorde, Sade, Drake, Robyn and Björk and ranges from “Blue" (Joni Mitchell) to “Kind of Blue" (Miles Davis) to “Blue Lines" (Massive Attack) to “The Blueprint" (Jay-Z).

It has the Beach Boys and the Beastie Boys, the Smiths and Patti Smith, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and other staples of past lists. But it also has Bad Bunny and Billie Eilish.

Instead of dropping the whole thing at once, Apple dripped out 10 albums a day, building suspense as people buzzed about which record could possibly deserve the title of greatest of all time.

The top of the list turned out to be as eclectic, unpredictable and controversial as the rest of it: “Abbey Road" by the Beatles at No. 3, “Thriller" by Michael Jackson at No. 2 and “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," by the singer and rapper Lauryn Hill, crowned the No. 1 album of all time.

When Rolling Stone published its list of the 500 greatest albums in 2003, it was dominated by rock music from the 1960s and 1970s, and the top spot went to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band" by the Beatles. As for Lauryn Hill’s 1998 record? It was 312th. Even when the magazine updated its rankings in 2020, bumping “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" all the way up to No. 10, it elevated Marvin Gaye’s boomer favorite “What’s Going On" to the No. 1 position.

That album was 17th on Apple’s list, behind records from Adele and Beyoncé—and “Sgt. Pepper" didn’t make the cut.

Of course, the natural response to any list is to point out all the ways that it’s not just wrong but completely embarrassing, so outrageous that everyone involved should have their ears checked.

It’s impossible to compare music across eras and genres, so every list of the greatest albums is inherently flawed, bound to disappoint everybody and satisfy nobody. Half the people who read this one will say there were too many pop albums. The other half will fixate on all the pop albums that were snubbed.

Taylor Swift’s “1989 (Taylor’s Version)" is 18th? Absurd. Obviously, the Taylor Swift records that belong on the list are “Fearless" and “Red."

This, as it happens, is exactly what Apple Music wants you to do with the 100 Best Albums list: discuss it, debate it, even disagree with it. Maybe you were pleasantly surprised and actually liked it. Maybe you hated it. As long as you’re talking about it.

“If we can ignite a conversation amongst our subscribers and the industry," said Oliver Schusser , Apple’s vice president of Apple Music, “that’s success."

It was clearly a stunt to get attention and sell subscriptions to Apple Music, which isn’t nearly as big as industry giant Spotify.

It was also a risk. Apple recently apologized for a shockingly tone-deaf iPad advertisement , and this was another marketing ploy that could have backfired and sparked more criticism, since a list of the 100 best albums might as well be an invitation to a roast.

But it was a flex, too. Unlike other lists, Apple Music’s includes the bells and whistles of a streaming platform, and the company’s goal was to break through the noise of online discourse and get people to actually engage with these albums.

There were lots of jokes when the list came out that it reads like something generated by ChatGPT. In fact, the opposite was true. At a time when albums are being atomized into playlists and platforms are dominated by algorithmic recommendations, the most contrarian part of this project is that it was crafted by human tastemakers.

“We have always placed a premium on human curation," said Ebro Darden, Apple Music’s global editorial head of hip-hop and R&B.

Human curation is one way to describe how an endless list of albums got whittled down to the final 100 Best Albums list.

Another way is that a bunch of people got in a room to sit around and talk about music.

“Nobody here can think of a better use of their time than sitting around and talking about music," said Rachel Newman, Apple Music’s senior director of content and editorial.

They talked about the influential albums of the past. They talked about the transcendent records that will inevitably shape the future. They really talked about a question that Lowe put this way: “How long does an album have to exist before it’s considered one of the greatest of all time?"

Apple thought differently about its answer.

It would have seemed premature to have the Beatles or Marvin Gaye on such a list 50 years ago. But it would have been prescient. This list set out to celebrate the modern records that will be on similar lists of historically significant albums 50 years from now.

The ones that were “complete thoughts, not just collections of hit songs," Darden says . The ones that captured a feeling, reflected a moment and inspired other musicians. The ones that defined a time or were so far ahead of their time that they proved timeless.

When it was time to put the list together, Apple Music employees submitted their albums, ranked No. 1 through No. 25. The rest of the voters included artists, songwriters and producers across a broad spectrum of genres and eras, from disco to country to punk-pop.

Once the votes were tallied, Apple Music prepared the final list and waited for the most human part of the whole exercise.

For everyone to complain that whatever Taylor Swift album they chose was too high or way too low.

Write to Ben Cohen at ben.cohen@wsj.com

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