The Rolling Stone Album Guide

The Rolling Stone Album Guide, previously known as The Rolling Stone Record Guide, is a book that contains professional music reviews written and edited by staff members from Rolling Stone magazine. Its first edition was published in 1979 and its last in 2004. The guide can be seen at Rate Your Music,[1] while a list of albums given a five star rating by the guide can be seen at[2][3]

The Rolling Stone Record Guide
AuthorDave Marsh and John Swenson (Editors)
PublisherRandom House/Rolling Stone Press
Publication date
Media typeHardcover / Paperback
LC ClassML156.4.P6 M37

First edition (1979)

The Rolling Stone Record Guide was the first edition of what would later become The Rolling Stone Album Guide. It was edited by Dave Marsh (who wrote a large majority of the reviews) and John Swenson, and included contributions from 34 other music critics. It is divided into sections by musical genre and then lists artists alphabetically within their respective genres. Albums are also listed alphabetically by artist although some of the artists have their careers divided into chronological periods.

Dave Marsh, in his Introduction, cites as precedents Leonard Maltin's book TV Movies and Robert Christgau's review column in the Village Voice. He gives Phonolog and Schwann's Records & Tape Guide as raw sources of information.

The first edition included black and white photographs of many of the covers of albums which received five star reviews. These titles are listed together in the Five-Star Records section, which is coincidentally five pages in length.

The edition also included reviews for many comedy artists including Lenny Bruce, Lord Buckley, Bill Cosby, The Firesign Theatre, Spike Jones, and Richard Pryor.

Comedy artists were listed in the catch-all section "Rock, Soul, Country and Pop", which included the genres of folk (Carter Family, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly), bluegrass (Bill Monroe), funk (The Meters, Parliament-Funkadelic), and reggae (Toots & the Maytals, Peter Tosh), as well as comedy. Traditional pop performers were not included (e.g. Andrews Sisters, Tony Bennett, Perry Como, Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee, Rudy Vallee, Lawrence Welk), with the notable exceptions of Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. (Dave Marsh justified this decision in his Introduction.)

Included too were some difficult-to-classify artists (e.g. Osibisa, Yma Sumac, Urubamba) who might now be considered as world music. (Ethnic music was the normal term in 1979.)

Big band jazz was handled selectively, with certain band leaders omitted (e.g. Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Paul Whiteman), while others were included (e.g. Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman). Many other styles of jazz did appear in the Jazz section.

The book was notable for the time in the provocative, "in your face" style of many of its reviews. For example, writing about Neil Young's song, "Down by the River", John Swenson described it both as an "FM radio classic" (p. 425), and as a "wimp anthem" (p. 244). His colleague, Dave Marsh, in reviewing the three albums of the jazz fusion group Chase, gave a one-word review: "Flee." (p. 70).

Table of contents

  • Introduction
  • Rock, Soul, Country and Pop
  • Blues
  • Jazz
  • Gospel
  • Anthologies, Soundtracks and Original Casts
  • Five-Star Records
  • Glossary
  • Selected Bibliography

Rating system

The guide employs a five star rating scale with the following descriptions of those ratings:[1]

  • 5/5 stars
    • Indispensable: a record that must be included in any comprehensive collection
  • 4/5 stars
    • Excellent: a record of substantial merit, though flawed in some essential way.
  • 3/5 stars
    • Good: a record of average worth, but one that might possess considerable appeal for fans of a particular style.
  • 2/5 stars
    • Mediocre: a record that is artistically insubstantial, though not truly wretched.
  • 1/5 stars
    • Poor: a record where even technical competence is at question or it was remarkably ill-conceived.
  • 0/5 stars
    • Worthless: a record that need never (or should never) have been created. Reserved for the most bathetic bathwater. (A square bullet (▪) marked this rating, as opposed to stars for the others.)


Second edition (1983)

The New Rolling Stone Record Guide
AuthorDave Marsh and John Swenson (Editors)
SubjectMusic, Popular music, Discography, Sound recording, Reviews
PublisherRandom House/Rolling Stone Press
Publication date
Media typePaperback

The New Rolling Stone Record Guide was an update of 1979's The Rolling Stone Record Guide. Like the first edition, it was edited by Marsh and Swenson. It included contributions from 52 music critics and featured chronological album listings under the name of each artist. In many cases, updates from the first edition consist of short, one-sentence verdicts upon an artist's later work.

Instead of having separate sections such as Blues and Gospel, this edition compressed all of the genres it reviewed into one section except for Jazz titles which were removed for this edition and were later expanded and published in 1985 Rolling Stone Jazz Record Guide (ed. Swenson). Besides adding reviews for many emerging punk and New Wave bands, this edition also added or expanded a significant number of reviews of long-established reggae and ska artists (such as U-Roy, Prince Buster, Ijahman, et al.).

Since the goal of this guide was to review records that were in print at the time of publication, this edition featured a list of artists who were included in the first edition but were not included in the second edition because all of their material was out of print. [2]This edition also dispensed with the album cover photos found in the first edition.

Table Of Contents

  • Introduction to the Second Edition
  • Introduction to the First Edition
  • Ratings
  • Reviewers
  • Record Label Abbreviations
  • Rock, Soul, Blues, Country, Gospel and Pop
  • Anthologies, Soundtracks and Original Cast
  • Index to Artists in the First Edition (omitted in this second edition)

Rating System

The second edition uses the same rating system as the first edition. The only difference is that in addition to a rating, the second edition employs the pilcrow mark (¶) to indicate a title that was out of print at the time the guide was published. Some artists had the ratings for their albums lowered (notably The Doors, Yes and Neil Young) as the book now offered a revisionist slant to rock's history; other bands, such as Little Feat and Richard Hell And The Voidoids, garnered higher ratings from a re-evaluation of their work.[2]


  • Dave Marsh
  • John Swenson
  • Billy Altman
  • George Arthur
  • Lester Bangs
  • Bob Blumenthal
  • J.D. Considine
  • Jean-Charles Costa
  • Brian Cullman
  • Dan Doyle
  • Jim Farber
  • Laura Fissinger
  • Chet Flippo
  • David Fricke
  • Aaron Fuchs
  • Steve Futterman
  • Debbie Geller
  • Russell Gersten
  • Mikal Gilmore
  • Alan E. Goodman
  • Randall Grass
  • Malu Halasa
  • Peter Herbst
  • Stephen Holden
  • Martha Hume
  • Scott Isler
  • Gary Kenton
  • Wayne King
  • Kenn Lowy
  • Bruce Malamut
  • Greil Marcus
  • Ira Mayer
  • Joe McEwen
  • David McGee
  • John Milward
  • Teri Morris
  • John Morthland
  • Paul Nelson
  • Alan Niester
  • Rob Patterson
  • Kit Rachlis
  • Ira Robbins
  • Wayne Robbins
  • Frank Rose
  • Michael Rozek
  • Fred Schruers
  • Dave Schulpas
  • Tom Smucker
  • Ariel Swartley
  • Bart Testa
  • Ken Tucker
  • Charley Walters[2]

The Rolling Stone Jazz Record Guide (1985)

The Rolling Stone Jazz Record Guide
Rolling Stone Jazz Record Guide
AuthorJohn Swenson (Editor)
SubjectMusic, Jazz, Discography, Sound recording, Reviews
PublisherRandom House/Rolling Stone Press
Publication date
Media typePaperback

The Rolling Stone Jazz Record Guide was published in 1985 and incorporated the jazz listings omitted from The New Rolling Stone Record Guide with additional reviews edited by John Swenson. It included contributions from 16 music critics and featured alphabetical album listings under the name of each artist.

Table Of Contents

  • Foreword
  • Preface
  • Ratings
  • Contributors
  • Record Label Abbreviations
  • Reviews
  • Bibliography

Rating System

This jazz edition uses the same rating system as the first two editions.


  • John Swenson
  • Bob Blumenthal
  • Jean-Charles Costa
  • Steve Futterman
  • Russell Gersten
  • Mikal Gilmore
  • Alan E. Goodman
  • Fred Goodman
  • Stephen Holden
  • Ashley Kahn
  • Bruce Malamut
  • Joe McEwen
  • Michael Rozek
  • Andy Rowan
  • Bart Testa
  • Charley Walters

Third edition (1992)

The Rolling Stone Album Guide
AuthorAnthony DeCurtis and James Henke, with Holly George-Warren(Editors)
SubjectMusic, Popular music, Discography, Sound recording, Reviews
PublisherRandom House
Publication date
Media typePaperback

The Rolling Stone Album Guide was a complete rewrite of both 1979's The Rolling Stone Record Guide and 1983's The New Rolling Stone Record Guide. The title change reflects the fact that by the time this edition was published in 1992, records were almost completely replaced by CDs. This edition employs three new editors and reduces the number of reviewers from more than 50 as seen in previous editions to a mere four. This edition also included reviews of Jazz albums, which had been removed from the previous edition for the sake of publishing a separate Jazz guide. Unlike both previous editions, this edition did not include comedy artists.

Table of contents

  • Introduction
  • Ratings
  • Contributors
  • The Rolling Stone Album Guide
  • Anthologies
  • Soundtracks
  • Acknowledgments

Rating System

Similar to the first edition, it employed a five star rating scale (without the "zero stars" (▪) rating), but this edition had new definitions of what the number of stars meant, and employed the use of 1/2 stars in the reviews. The descriptions of the markings used in the third edition of the guide are:[3]

  • 5/5 stars
    • Classic: Albums in this category are essential listening for anyone interested in the artist under discussion or the style of music that artist's work represents.
  • 4/5 stars
    • Excellent: Four star albums represent peak performances in an artist's career. Generally speaking, albums that are granted four or more stars constitute the best introductions to an artist's work for listeners who are curious.
  • 3/5 stars
    • Average to Good: Albums in the three-star range will primarily be of interest to established fans of the artist being discussed. This mid-range, by its very nature, requires the most discretion on the part of the consumer.
  • 2/5 stars
    • Fair to Poor: Albums in the two-star category either fall below an artist's established standard or are, in and of themselves, failures.
  • 1/5 stars
    • Disastrous: Albums in the range of one star or less are wastes of vital resources. Only masochists or completists need apply.


  • Mark Coleman
  • J.D. Considine
  • Paul Evans
  • David McGee[3]

Artists omitted from the third edition

Some of the artists included in the previous editions but omitted in this edition include:

The Rolling Stone Jazz & Blues Album Guide (1999)

The Rolling Stone Jazz & Blues Album Guide was first published by Random House in 1999, with John Swenson as the editor.[4]

Reviewing the book for All About Jazz, C. Michael Bailey regarded it as a consolidation of the 1985 jazz guide and the blues coverage from other Rolling Stone guides. He recommended it to novices, calling it "a worthy addition to any serious jazz/blues collector's library", even though it was not as comprehensive as The Penguin Guide to Jazz or All Music Guide to Jazz, in his opinion.[5]

Fourth edition (2004)

The New Rolling Stone Album Guide
New Rolling Stone Album Guide 2004
AuthorNathan Brackett with Christian Hoard (editors)
SubjectMore than 10,000 of the best Rock, Pop, Hip-Hop, and Soul Records, Reviewed and Rated
Publication date
Media typePaperback

Approximately 70 writers contributed to this edition. Text on the back cover of the fourth edition claims that the guide had been "completely updated and revised to include the past decade's artists and sounds", and offered "biographical overviews of key artists' careers, giving readers a look at the personalities behind the music".

Artists omitted from the fourth edition

Some of the artists included in the previous guides but omitted in this edition include:

See also


  1. ^ album guide link
  2. ^ This guide gave 'Aja' from Steely Dan 3.5/5 Stars.5-Star-Albums from the Second Edition (Published in 1983) of "The Rolling Stone Record Guide"
  3. ^ 5-Star-Albums from the Fourth Edition
  4. ^ Swenson, John (1999). The Rolling Stone Jazz & Blues Album Guide. Random House. ISBN 9780679768739.
  5. ^ Bailey, C. Michael (March 8, 2004). "The Rolling Stone Jazz & Blues Album Guide". All About Jazz. Retrieved August 28, 2018.


  1. ^ a The Rolling Stone Record Guide. Ed. Dave Marsh and John Swenson. New York: Random House, 1979. (Note 1, see p xiii) (Note 1a, see p xv-xvi)
  2. ^ a b The New Rolling Stone Record Guide. Ed. Dave Marsh and John Swenson. New York: Random House, 1983. (Note 2, see p 645-648) (Note 2a, see p xv) (Note 2b, see p xvii-xix)
  3. ^ a The Rolling Stone Album Guide. Ed. Anthony DeCurtis and James Henke with Holly George-Warren. New York: Random House, 1992. (Note 3, see p vii) (Note 3a, see ix)

Further reading

Amandla (album)

Amandla is an album by jazz musician Miles Davis, released in 1989. It is the third collaboration between Miles Davis and producer/bassist Marcus Miller, after Tutu (1986) and Music from Siesta (1987), and their final album together. The album mixes elements of the genres go-go, zouk, funk and jazz, combining electronic instruments with live musicians. The composition "Mr. Pastorius", featuring drummer Al Foster, is a tribute to late jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius. "Catémbe" is a Mozambican and Angolan cocktail of red wine and cola.

Angel in Blue

"Angel in Blue" is a song written by Seth Justman that was first released by the J. Geils Band on their 1981 album Freeze Frame. Released as a single in 1982, the song reached the Top 40. Cissy Houston and Luther Vandross appear on the song as back up vocalists.AllMusic critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine describes the song as "terrific neo-doo wop." Viglione praises it further, stating that it is "arguably the smartest lyric in the J. Geils Band catalogue" with a "strong melody," concluding that it is "four minutes and fifty-one seconds (on the album) of Peter Wolf reading Seth Justman's post-"Centerfold" wet dream." Music critic Robert Christgau states describes the song as "slick get-'em-off trash" about "a whore with a heart of brass that I'm just a sucker for." Mark Coleman of The Rolling Stone Album Guide finds the song to be "haunting.""Angel in Blue" was released as a single in 1982, following the Top 10 hits "Centerfold" and "Freeze Frame" from the Freeze Frame album. It peaked at #40 on the Billboard Hot 100, remaining there for two weeks. It also reached #55 in the UK. The song also made the Billboard Singles Radio Action chart in a number of regions, including Buffalo, New York, Annapolis, Maryland, Nashville, Tennessee and Jacksonville, Florida. "Angel in Blue" was also released on a number of J. Geils Band compilation albums, including Centerfold, The Very Best J. Geils Band Album Ever and Best of The J. Geils Band, as well as several multi-artist compilation albums.

Chest Fever

"Chest Fever" is a song recorded by the Band on its 1968 debut, Music from Big Pink. It is, according to Peter Viney, a historian of the group, "the Big Pink track that has appeared on most subsequent live albums and compilations", second only to "The Weight".

The music for the piece was written by guitarist Robbie Robertson. Total authorship is typically credited solely to Robertson, although the lyrics, according to Levon Helm, were originally improvised by Levon Helm and Richard Manuel, telling the story of a man who becomes sick when he is spurned by the woman he loves.Robertson has since said the lyrics were nonsensical, used only while the instrumental tracks were recorded. "I'm not sure that I know the words to 'Chest Fever'; I'm not even so sure there are words to 'Chest Fever'." He has also stated the entirety of the song does not make sense.

At the Woodstock Festival in 1969, the Band performed on the final day, between Ten Years After and Blood, Sweat, and Tears. They opened the set with "Chest Fever".

The song featured a dramatic solo organ intro played by Garth Hudson. Writing in the 3rd edition of The Rolling Stone Album Guide, Paul Evans stated that "The organ mastery of 'Chest Fever' unleashed the Band's secret weapon, Garth Hudson." The introduction is based on Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor. In live performances, this solo evolved into an improvisation drawing from numerous musical styles and lasting several minutes. "When Levon Helm has complained about the share out of royalties at this period, this is the song he quotes," states Viney. "His theme is that Garth's contribution was always grossly under-estimated and under-credited. As he says, 'what do you remember about 'Chest Fever' - the lyrics or the organ part?'"

Down to the Waterline

"Down to the Waterline" is a 1978 song written by Mark Knopfler and first released by Dire Straits as the first song on their debut album, Dire Straits. It was also included on the demo tape that the band sent to Charlie Gillett, which led to their first recording contract. It was subsequently released as the B-side of the "Water of Love" single.

The lyrics of "Down to the Waterline" tell of a brief sexual tryst. Cary Darling of Billboard praises the song as superior to the other love songs on side 1 of Dire Straits, including "Water of Love." According to Mark Knopfler's brother and fellow Dire Straits member David, the song's imagery is based on Mark's memories of walking along the River Tyne at night under the lights with his girlfriend when he was a teenager. Darling praises the lyrics as "incisive" but "never cliched." Darling also praises the moody foghorn sound that opens the song, Knopfler's "quick finger picking" guitar playing and the tightness of the band on this song. Author Joel McNally describes how "the band appears out of the fog" to start the song, noting that the effect is "not hokey." High Fidelity also commented on the song's "tender, passionate, and yet unsentimental" erotic imagery.Hi-Fi News & Record Review described the song as "bouncy and punchy." The Rolling Stone Album Guide commented on the song's "galloping groove." Montreal Gazette critic Bubert Bauch claims that "Once Upon a Time in the West", the song that opened Dire Straits' second album, Communiqué, sounded very similar to "Down to the Waterline", which opened their debut album."Down to the Waterline" later appeared on Dire Straits live album Live at the BBC and on the Dire Straits "Best of" compilation album Money for Nothing.

Get Up with It

Get Up with It is a compilation album by American jazz musician Miles Davis. Released by Columbia Records on November 22, 1974, it compiled songs Davis had recorded in sessions between 1970 and 1974, including those for the studio albums Jack Johnson (1971) and On the Corner (1972). In The Rolling Stone Album Guide (2004), J. D. Considine described the compilation's music as "worldbeat fusion".

Greg Kot

Greg Kot (born March 3, 1957) is an American writer, author and journalist. Since 1990, Kot has been the music critic at the Chicago Tribune, where he has covered popular music and reported on music-related social, political and business issues. Kot cohosts Sound Opinions which claims in its intro to be "the world's only rock 'n' roll talk show," nationally syndicated through its home base at Chicago Public Radio, WBEZ-FM 91.5.Kot's books include Wilco: Learning How to Die, Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music, and I'll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers and the March up Freedom's Highway. He also co-authored The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones: Sound Opinions on the Great Rock 'n' Roll Rivalry (Voyageur Press) with his Sound Opinions co-host Jim DeRogatis. His music criticism and journalism also has appeared in Encyclopædia Britannica, Cash: By the Editors of Rolling Stone, Harrison: A Rolling Stone tribute to George Harrison, The Trouser Press Guide to '90s Rock, The Rolling Stone Album Guide and MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide. A longtime contributor to Rolling Stone, Kot has written for a dozen national publications, including Details, Blender, Entertainment Weekly, Men's Journal, Guitar World, Vibe and Request.

Her Town Too

"Her Town Too" is a song written by James Taylor, J.D. Souther and Waddy Wachtel. It was first released as a duet between Taylor and Souther on Taylor's 1981 album Dad Loves His Work. It was also released as a single in 1981, peaking at #11 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song had entered the Hot 100 chart at #38, making it one of the few songs to enter the chart in the Top 40 but not reach the Top 10. As of 2014, it is Taylor's last single to reach the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100. "Her Town Too" also reached #5 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart and #21 on the Mainstream Rock chart.The subject of "Her Town Too" is the aftermath of a breakup of a long term relationship. Taylor has called it "a tender, well-meaning song about how difficult it was to be friends" with both parties after the breakup. Since Taylor's marriage to Carly Simon was breaking up at the time, there was speculation that the song was about their relationship. However, Taylor has stated that the song was about "the ex-wife of a mutual friend." Author Sheila Weller has written that the subject was Betsy Asher, who had recently divorced from Taylor's longtime manager and producer Peter Asher.Taylor has said of the song that it "showed a maturity in song structure that had been developing since I wrote 'Your Smiling Face' for JT." "Your Smiling Face and JT had been issued four years earlier, in 1977. Taylor also claimed that the song had "a relentless bolero quality." The Rolling Stone Album Guide called it a "gently incisive divorce song" that was "among [Taylor's] finest pieces of writing." Rolling Stone critic Don Shewey notes that despite the song's worthy ambitions, the narrative never quite reaches a resolution, and thus the song "comes across as merely a catchy, mindless ditty." Montreal Gazette critic John Griffin praised the song's "mellifluous melody" and the way lyrics such as "she always figured that they were her friends but maybe they can live without her" resonates with people who have had friendships with one or the other partner disintegrate after a relationship ends."Her Town Too" was later released on the 2000 compilation album Greatest Hits Volume 2.

Live (They Might Be Giants album)

Live is a 1999 live album by They Might Be Giants. It was a condensed version of Severe Tire Damage. While most of the tracks were live, as the name implies, "Doctor Worm" was a studio-recorded track.

Minneapolis sound

The Minneapolis sound is a subgenre of funk rock with elements of synth-pop and new wave, that was pioneered by Prince in the late 1970s. Its popularity was given a boost throughout the 1980s, thanks to him and his musical adherents, including The Time, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Morris Day, Vanity 6, Apollonia 6, Ta Mara & the Seen, Sheila E., Jesse Johnson, Brownmark, Mazarati, and The Family.

According to the Rolling Stone Album Guide, "the Minneapolis sound... loomed over mid-'80s R&B and pop, not to mention the next two decades' worth of electro, house, and techno."Some artists who came from Minnesota were influenced by Prince's work and some came from other parts of the U.S. or world, such as Scottish star Sheena Easton, Flint, Michigan's Ready for the World and Los Angeles, California's Cherrelle.

More Joy, Less Shame

More Joy, Less Shame is an EP album by Ani DiFranco.

Normal as the Next Guy

Normal as the Next Guy is the 6th and final album by The Knack, released in 2001. It marks the 4th comeback attempt by the band after its second album, ...But the Little Girls Understand, failed to achieve the success of the band's début album. Allmusic critic Mark Deming noted that the album finds songwriter and lead singer Doug Fieger having resolved his issues with women, but has not "found a subject that appears to compel him nearly as much as the treacheries of girls once did." Therefore, Deming feels that compared to older songs by the band, the songs on Normal as the Next Guy "may be more pleasant, but they're not as interesting." The Rolling Stone Album Guide gave the album a 3 star rating, as high as the group's début Get The Knack, and higher than any other Knack studio album.Normal as the Next Guy was The Knack's first release on Smile Records. Pat Torpey and David Henderson play drums on Normal as the Next Guy, instead of original Knack drummer Bruce Gary. Fieger has described the album as "us doing whatever we want."

On Fire (Galaxie 500 album)

On Fire is the second studio album by American indie rock band Galaxie 500, released in 1989 on Rough Trade Records.

The Rolling Stone Album Guide called it Galaxie 500's "best album by far". In 2002, Pitchfork placed it at number 16 on its "Top 100 Albums of the 1980s" list. In 2013, Fact placed it at number 51 on its "100 Best Albums of the 1980s" list. In 2018, Pitchfork ranked it fourth on its "The 30 Best Dream Pop Albums" list.In 2010, the album was re-issued and peaked at number 45 on the UK Independent Albums Chart and number 10 on the UK Independent Album Breakers Chart.

Out of Range (album)

Out of Range is the fifth studio album by singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco, released in 1994. (see 1994 in music).

Puddle Dive

Puddle Dive is the fourth studio album by singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco, released in 1993. (see 1993 in music).

Special One

Special One is the fourteenth studio album by the band Cheap Trick. It was released in 2003 to mixed reviews and features the single "Scent of a Woman." It charted for one week, reaching 128 on the album charts.

Uneasy Listening (Chumbawamba album)

Uneasy Listening is a compilation album by anarcho-punk band Chumbawamba. It contains songs from the time of their first album Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records up to 1998.

Water of Love

"Water of Love" is a song written by Mark Knopfler and originally released on Dire Straits' self-titled debut album. It was also released as a single in some countries, backed by "Down to the Waterline," as a follow-up to the band's first single from the album, "Sultans of Swing." The single reached #28 on the Dutch charts. It also reached #54 in Australia. The song was also included on Dire Straits live album Live at the BBC and on the multi-artist compilation album More Than Unplugged.Both "Water of Love" and "Down to the Waterline," as well as "Sultans of Swing," were among the five songs included on Dire Straits' demo tape that the band sent to Charlie Gillett, who played the tape on his radio show leading to the band's first recording contract. It is one of four songs on side 1 of the Dire Straits album which deals with unhappy relationships, and author Michael Oldfield believes that the song is basically about the break-up of Mark Knopfler's marriage. Writing in Rolling Stone, Ken Tucker used the song as an example of Knopfler's penchant for mixing clever lines with prosaic ones. Tucker gives as an example the clever line "I need a little water of love" followed by "You know it's evil when you're living alone," which Tucker considers a silly line. Writing in Billboard, Cary Darling praised the song's lyrics but criticizes the easy listening arrangement which "fails to grab the listener." The Rolling Stone Album Guide commented on the "stark, romantic vision" of this song and its B-side, "Down to the Waterline," and how that vision contrasted with the bitterness of Dire Straits' songs such as "Sultans of Swing.""Water of Love" is one of five songs that Knopfler's publisher made country demos of without Knopfler's approval, leading to a number of country covers of Knopfler's songs. This led to a cover version recorded by The Judds, which appeared on their River of Time album and was a single in Germany. Wynonna Judd provided a "nocturnal and mysterious" lead vocal, and Knopfler himself played guitar on the Judds' version. Allmusic critic Thom Jurek described the song as "the most seductive tune" on River of Time and The Rolling Stone Album Guide praised Knopfler's "typically pungent" guitar solo. Alex Bollard and Lex Vandyke have also covered the song.In his book My Life in Orange, author Tim Guest recalls listening to Dire Straits' version of the song and the line "Water of love, deep in the ground, but there ain't no water here to be found" as a child hiding behind the sofa and wishing that the water of love would come to him some day. The first person narrator of Caprice Crane's first novel Stupid and Contagious references "Water of Love" as an example of a clever song that she would like to hear quoted instead of the sound of flushing toilets, along with AC/DC's "Big Balls," ZZ Top's "Tush," Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" or Frank Sinatra's "My Way."

On the Dire Straits live album 'Live at the BBC,' as an introduction to the song they are about to perform, Mark Knopfler, with his signature dead-pan humour, is heard saying, "Okay, well, uh, this is a song called Water of Love. It is a... a strange idea but it's maybe one that you want to think about, a lot..."

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