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There's a Riot Goin' On has been considered one of the first instances of the funk music later popularized by George Clinton and Funkadelic, the Ohio Players, and similar acts. The album, as well as the follow-ups Fresh and Small Talk, are considered among the first and best examples of the matured version of funk music, after prototypical instances of the sound in Sly & the Family Stone's 1960s work. Riot's sound also helped inspire Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock to crossover to jazz-funk. It was called "a masterpiece of darkly psychedelic funk" by AllMusic contributor Steve Huey, and "a phenomenal, dirty, psychedelic funk album" by Drowned in Sound journalist Jon Falcone, who said it soundtracked the political and social turbulence that opened the 1970s. Paul Grimstad from Brooklyn Rail regarded it as a "frigid yet weirdly intimate" avant-pop record.
In 1994 There's a Riot Going On was ranked number 14 in Colin Larkin's Top 50 Soul Albums. Larkin described the album as "unlike anything heard before in black music". A 2003 article for Rolling Stone commented; "Sly and the Family Stone created a musical utopia: an interracial group of men and women who blended funk, rock and positive vibes... Sly Stone ultimately discovered that his utopia had a ghetto, and he brilliantly tore the whole thing down on There's a Riot Goin' On, which does not refute the joy of his earlier music." In addition to being featured near the top of several major publications' "best album" lists, Riot was also ranked at number 99 on Rolling Stone's 2003 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, maintaining the rating in a 2012 revised list, one of four Sly & the Family Stone entries to be included on the list; it is the second highest of the band's entries, preceded by Greatest Hits (#60), and followed by Stand! (#118) and Fresh (#186). Pitchfork named it the fourth best album of the 1970s.