Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Um... I guess it's good to have one of the genre's guitar virtuosos on here, right?
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: More boomer-based self-love. The first Santana record isn't all that important in the grand scheme of music, only has one main hit and is mostly the product of jam bandery (which I'll examine in a minute). It has one hit and one sort-of signature song. It's not a great record, though the cover is neat.
Best song: "Evil Ways" and "Soul Sacrifice" are the only two really great songs.
Worst song: "Waiting" stinks.
Is it awesome?: It's pretty great.
Why is this record on here? I'm not really sure, to be honest. It doesn't have any particular super-duper-great songs (the band's best two songs are on the next one, "Abraxas"). It doesn't do anything, musically, of particular note; The Latin-tinged rock has been done with Love, Jefferson Airplane and the like already. The jam band aspect of it was more pronounced in bands like The Grateful Dead.
Robert Christgau's review sums it up well:
Just want to register my unreconstructed opposition to the methedrine school of American music. A lot of noise. C-
Not surprisingly, the RS summary for the list contains a quote that seemingly builds off this:he first two times Santana tried to record their debut, they scrapped the tapes. But the third time, they came up with Santana, which combined Latin rhythms with jazz-inspired improvisation, hard-rock guitar and lyrical, B.B. King-style blues -- and even had a hit single, "Evil Ways." Back then, a lot of Carlos Santana's guitar playing was fueled by psychedelic drugs. "I don't recommend it to anybody and everybody," Santana told Rolling Stone in 2000. "Yet for me, I feel it did wonders. It made me aware of splendor and rapture." For millions of people, Santana did the same thing.
(Emphasis is mine)
So... What we have here is a band that played at Woodstock (the boomer event), took a lot of drugs (boomer experience) and has the appearance of multiculturalism (white guilt, something boomers perfected [and passed on to their children, as I can attest]). It hits the boomer triple play!
Carlos Santana is a fantastic guitar player, no doubt. And I do wonder (here comes some white guilt!) if his presence in music history is buoyed partially by his Latin heritage and whether that matters or not. On one hand, I have to think that a Mexican-born musician being a big part of musical history is important to young Latin-Americans who want to get into rock and roll, in the same way the black hard rock and metal musicians (Kings X, for example) might make some young black guitar players want to be a part of rock and roll.
On the other hand, Santana's music just isn't much more than jam band nonsense. He can play, but how does that make him so much different from a Latin Steve Vai or Joe Satriani? I do think there is a lot of white guilt in there; Liberals like to show how cultured they are and liking a Latin guitar player -- as opposed to the white ones -- might look more cultured.
Again, I'm not saying that's the only reason he's popular. Jam band stuff is popular. A lot of people love the Grateful Dead. Certainly his current persona of "middle of the road old guy who teams up with middle of the road young people" has nothing to do with his ethnicity.
But, again, why is this record so high? Why is it higher than Dead records? Why is it higher than the Roxy Music records? Why is it higher than "OK Computer" or any Metallica record? If we need Santana this high, why is it higher than "Abraxas?" I don't know.