Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Artists (Introduction and Runners-Up)


For the Fifty Years of Great Music series I’ve celebrated the songs, I’ve championed the albums, so there’s only one thing left to do: commemorate the artists who made them. Starting tomorrow and lasting for every day of the entire month of March I will be revealing who I think are the hundred greatest musical acts from 1960 through 2009. Before the list begins, keep reading to learn more and see some of the artists that just missed the cut, the acts that peaked too early for contention, and which ones have the best shot at immortality in the coming years.

The creation of this final list will likely be viewed more as an inevitability than a surprise, but I was hesitant to do so for a long time. Albums and songs are relatively compact, can be absorbed with regularity and exist with concrete, almost tangible outcomes; but how can anyone accurately assess a band or singer’s entire career? Be it a few years or a few decades, it’s an awful lot to consider. Then there’s the matter of preference and personal taste (which irked me even when choosing between tunes and LPs)—I know that De La Soul is conditionally a “better” act than Green Day, but if forced to choose, most days I’d listen to the bratty rockers. And there could be a multi-instrumentalist prodigy with an operatically-trained golden voice out there but he/she might not be getting the same acclaim and press as some screaming madman who only pummels out the same Iommi riffs over and over again; who’s to say which is better? Maybe the former’s songs are maudlin junk while the latter’s ferocity and hooks are unstoppable. Pure talent never dictates how good a recording is, but shouldn’t it be weighed when judging an artist’s merits?

To get a better idea of how I came to these ruthless decisions, the following is what I considered, in order of importance:

Really Important
What’s on the record. Specifically, all the LPs, EPs, singles, B-sides, rarities, demos and bootlegs, with quality trumping quantity. At the end of the day, this is what matters far and away the most. In fact, you might as well assume that about 80% of what’s to come made it on here just because of how impressive their catalogs were and used the remaining considerations to help sort the order and decide closely-ranked match-ups (it wouldn’t be that far from the truth). If you don’t agree with this assessment, feel free to mentally edit the list title to being the “Top 100 Recording Artists.”

The ripple effect. How acclaimed are they for their artistry, influence, and drive? How have they used their talents to maximum effect (or, perhaps even more impressively, overcome their shortcomings)? How important were they to their generation and future generations? How many (respectable) acts tried to sound just like them? How many times have you described other artists like: “They kinda sound like [blank], but, you know, mere mortals”? How many millions of people flock to their world tours even though they haven’t released anything of note since the Reagan administration? How many questions can I ask before I irritate the hell out of you? One more? Nope, that was way beyond the limit. My apologies?

Slightly Less Important
Showmanship. I’m sure most would rate this factor near the top, but I’m less inclined. If you got a really good song, it’s hard to screw it up on stage. If you’ve got a turgid lump of crap with notes stuck to it, no glitz or flair is gonna redeem it. Simply having the chops doesn’t make someone a great artist (just look at Christina Aguilera). Only the stuff in between can be saved or sunk by how great a dancer you are or how much of the audience you command or how cool your pyrotechnics and laser effects are. It’s impossible, however, to deny that some careers are made in this fashion, so it still takes a toll on these rankings, and at the end of the day, they are entertainers. Besides, hard work and artistry is invested in this, and you’d better believe that that matters.

Not So Important
The dog days. Nearly every band/performer, even the all-time greats, has periods of mediocrity, make bad decisions, or temporarily just plain stink up the joint. By and large, these missteps and “resting on their laurel” episodes are forgivable in the face of overwhelming positive opposition. So unless the awful matches or exceeds the awesome, these dry patches only matter a few hairs, inches and degrees.

Ten Things That Don’t Matter at All
1. The number of records they’ve sold
2. The awards they’ve won
3. The ink they have (in both senses of the slang)
4. Being either cordial or massive pricks to colleagues, fans and/or press
5. Their number of Twitter followers
6. Their stylishly ambitious implementation of keytars
7. Bootyliciousness
8. Number of groupie conquests (and the ratio that gave/were given STDs)
9. Gossip rag scandals and tabloid escapades
10. Bieber Fever

Now you may be as eager as I am to get this show on the road, but there are still a few things to take care of before beginning the countdown tomorrow, notably the also-rans. These are by no means complete lists (I don’t want to spoil too much through close-call revelations), but at least I’ll be able to soften some of the exclusion blows by giving a few nods to some of those that came up just short.

The Jazzman
jazzmanWhile I have included jazz songs and LPs on earlier lists, there is an undeniable separation between jazz and pop music that’s nearly impossible to correlate—the latter is usually defined by its melodic hooks and lyrics while the latter (appropriately) almost never bothers with either. I just find it too difficult to compare the attributes and talents between the two styles. While there is certainly a fair argument to be made against someone’s reasoning in deciding between, say, Brian Wilson and AC/DC (and destroying the selective mentality of “lists” altogether), even I can take a stand in saying I can’t figure out how to gauge the critical difference between a Steven Tyler type and a Charles Mingus type. Besides, while it will no doubt lend ammunition to those disputing my credentials, I freely admit that my knowledge of jazz music is much more limited than my understanding of pop (especially for commercial jazz released after the mid-70s). So if you need acknowledgement of the genius of Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Dave Brubeck, Herbie Hancock, John Coltrane and countless others, this is the best you’ll get from me here. But, hey, it could be worse: a Bebop Cola machine could topple over on you and a clutch of eggs laid by a scorpion that you named Ben could hatch into your wounds. So keep your disappointment in perspective. “And I say to mysellllf, I need exact chaaaange.”

Burning Too Bright Too Early
Since this is Fifty Years of Great Music, that means the earliest I start judging is 1960; therefore, expect a snubbing of a lot of important, highly creative, astounding and even groundbreaking artists that began in the 40s and 50s. While it’s true that many of these major acts continued working and creating great music into the time of contention, there aren’t that many that produced new records at the same ludicrously high mark as their careers continued. Call it the oldies omissions, if you like, but there was a plethora of incredible talent that dimmed or died out (or simply died) too quickly or did so much damage in the early years that the rest just paled too much.

chuckberryChuck Berry – One of the undeniable pioneers of rock n’ roll, Chuck Berry was the wild man that taught everyone after him how to be a rock guitarist. The energy, the playful but self-assured attitude, the gnarly but clean guitar licks, the duck walk, the one-legged hop; he laid the stage for every guitar god to come. For “Maybellene” and “Johnny B. Goode” alone, he’s immortal, but the dude is 84 and still performing!

Johnny Cash – The Man in Black is the reason I gave country music a second and even third shot (though I still strongly dislike most of what I’ve heard). And he still came ridiculously close to making it on the list—closer, in fact, than any of these other senior titans. Not just for solid work as the 60s began (including two legendary prison live albums near the decade’s end), but also for his eye-opening American series comeback in the years before his death.

Ray Charles – No one modernized R&B music like Ray Charles did. At the time, it was viewed as sacrilege to secularize gospel music like he did, but by the 60s, hardly anyone of merit played either style the same again. And the man held his ground over Jim Crow laws and won—freakin’ heroic.

buddyhollyBuddy Holly – It’s remarkable how iconic his image, playing and singing is considering how brief his tenure in the spotlight was. But even though it’s easy for younger generations to forever equate him with Weezer songs and American pies, no one can argue that he doesn’t deserve the reverent attention.

Little Richard – (And, by extension of the influence, Fats Domino as well.) Being black and gay in Georgia during the 1950s must have been tough enough, but to become a superstar? In rock n’ roll, “A wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom,” is both a rallying cry and pure poetry.

Elvis Presley – He’s the King, baby, what else needs to be said? He even had a legitimate shot at a ranking even with his best days behind him by the 60s.

muddywatersMuddy Waters – Robert Johnson was probably the most influential blues player to ever live, but Muddy Waters shaped the future of blues music in the latter half of the twentieth century even starker. Hell, the most famous American music rag and one of the most famous rock n’ roll groups in history named themselves after one of his songs.

Hank Williams – For better or worse, country music would not be the same without Hank Williams. He died before he was thirty but he left a legacy that rivals almost anyone not just in the genre but the entire era.

Eternity in Their Reach
Some of the all-time great groups are still chugging along strong today; some even seem to be getting better. But it’s still a shade too early to properly judge some of the freshest contenders. Just as I exclude artists whose best years came before 1960, I must also leave off ones that came around a little too late even though they seem destined for greatness (in a couple cases, they reached it already in 2010). A few even already had the credentials but just needed a little more on their plate for realistic contention—what remains of their careers in the next decade or two will permanently decide their immortality. These are some of the acts a) whose potential or full career glory hasn’t quite been reached to elbow their way in, or b) whose résumés are full enough but just came up short, though time and continued work could lift them into the truly elite echelons.

Note: This does not mean I’m “pulling a Rolling Stone” and ignoring virtually all music from the last decade. There are several artists that did get a spot on the list even though they didn’t debut or hit it big until the aughts. 

arcadefireThe Arcade Fire – In a rock climate of little majesty and less soul, the Arcade Fire was a breath of fresh air. Smart but hugely emotional songcraft and production, passionate performance to the point of becoming unhinged, and simple themes elevated to grandiose tragedy and triumph; their debut album was one of the prime instigators in turning the indie types into major players.

Broken Social Scene – Songwriting, performance and production are all top-notch for this sprawling group, as capable of delivering expansive indie rock as gorgeous bedroom pop. With the second best album of 2002 and the seventh best of 2005, these Canadians were already in the hunt and just came up short. If Forgiveness Rock Record (the best album of 2010) had been released a year earlier for qualification, they would have slipped in with plenty of room to spare, no doubt.

Neko Case – For both her solo work as an alt-country siren and as a member of the New Pornographers; she’s actually been around since the 90s with Cub, Maow and Her Boyfriends, but didn’t get chillingly good until the last decade. For my money, she probably has the most appealing voice in modern music. I’d even watch American Idol if she sang on it (that’s not a request: please stay put, Ms. Case).

Deerhunter – Call it psych-pop or ambient punk or whatever else you like, Deerhunter has one of the most intriguing sounds of any rock group working today. No one else can sound so effortlessly knifesleepy and urgent at the same time.

The Knife – Even though the blogosphere discusses them constantly, this Swedish electronic sibling duo remains elusive—often wearing masks, rarely giving interviews, enigmatic lyrics, frosty and jagged beats. But it’s a hell of a sound, and their dedicated, cult-ish fanbase is still growing.

LCD Soundsystem – Or, if the collective name’s recently announced hiatus winds up being extended (or permanent), mainly James Murphy. Since bursting on the scene with “Losing My Edge,” both an ode to and dismissal of the fanatic record collector, buzz followed him around like crazy pursues Britney. But in nearly every way he’s lived up to that hype (and in some cases, even exceeded). Probably this last decade’s best dance music maestro…and he’s even got a heart.

Wolf Parade – They’ve hit some patches of inconsistency after their thrilling debut in 2005, but there are few songwriting duos working today as intriguing as Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug. yyysLet’s hope this “indefinite hiatus” thing doesn’t last too long.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – This trio showed fishnet-hugged legs in the race with their brash, hook-heavy sound. They seemed destined to shatter at any minute when they began but proved staying power by dropping several albums and EPs, all of ‘em worth hearing multiple times. They’re certainly not the most original or experimental group around, but few acts released as many ultra-catchy rock tunes as they have in the last decade.

The Runners-Up
Lastly, here are twenty artists battling for a spot on the list but just came up short. These are not necessarily the last twenty to get edged out—a few have even already been discussed above and, again, I don’t want to ruin all the suspense—but sometimes I feel the desire to open my arms a little wider for a more inclusive celebration. Er, and sometimes I just gotta make apologies.

The Band – Some of the finest Americana ever recorded…from a group whose members were primarily Canadian. It pains me to leave off the Band, but it’s tough not to admit that after their first two incredible albums, they started to trend towards “reliable” more than “extraordinary.” Incredible musicians all.

bjorkBjörk – It ain’t easy to sound original these days, but no one else really sounds like Björk Guðmundsdóttir. She’s done pop, toyed with surrealist rock, ratcheted on hard beats, laid down velvety strings, embraced African rhythms, and recorded almost an entire album using just voices. Even when she misses, what a wild, daring swing it was.

Blondie – One of the founders of New Wave, they smoothed out the edges of punk rock and injected heavy doses of glamorous pop, including the suspicious fad of disco music. Chic and imaginative, but not afraid to embrace the vulgarity of “low art” for the sake of a dynamite hook or swooning coo from the demurely radiant Deborah Harry.

Built to Spill – They rarely seem to get mentioned alongside the name drop-happy goliaths of indie rock, but Built to Spill did as good a job of combining that slack, rangy aesthetic with the classic guitar rock and summery pop of the 70s as anything that came from about four hundred miles northwest of their Boise homebase.

Can – Krautrock, krautrock, krautrock. No language or accent to distinguish its nationality (kraut), and hardly an imitation of Little Richard or the Stones (rock), but there it is.  

leonardcohenLeonard Cohen – A few too many career dry spells knocked him off—particularly with his late-70s output—but at his best, few singer/songwriters were fit to be in the same room as him. All credit and blame for the rise of “popular” bohemia after the 1980s can be traced back to him.

Depeche Mode – I already stated that record sales have no effect on my choices, but being the best-selling electronic act of all-time has to be worth something. It’s not easy to make dark electro-pop music that’s catchy as hell to an enormous array of people (even Trent Reznor isn’t as universally appealing). They’re also one of the rare 80s synth-pop acts to continue producing good music well into the 90s (Violator, the good halves of Songs of Faith and Devotion and Ultra), long after the fashion had run its course.

Eminem – Did you know this guy is white? I usually forget. It could have been a gimmick; instead it’s an unstudied footnote. And why was he able to dominate hip hop conversation for so many years? The easy answer might suggest some sort of media/broadcast bias in his favor (and perhaps that was even true at the outset). But really it’s because when he’s at the top of his game, when he’s truly inspired (and disturbed), when his myriad skills all line up just right, he’s the most absorbing, clever, hard-hitting, ambitious, functionally dexterous MC there is.

fleetwoodmacFleetwood Mac – Whether diving into blues that wasn’t particularly “heavy” or easy-listening rock that wasn’t particularly “soft,” Fleetwood Mac had enough top-notch moments to balance out the flat phases. They followed up a solid bluesy beginning by fading into sentimental mediocrity. They followed that up with a “supergroup” that spawned mega-platinum sales. They followed up the mega-seller Rumours with the multi-million dollar double LP Tusk (considered a failure despite going quadruple platinum). They followed that up by going straight-up pop. You can’t make this shit up.

Fugazi – Second only to Black Flag as being the quintessential hardcore group (and I like these guys more anyhow), Fugazi revolutionized the purpose and potential of their brand of music, integrating numerous sounds and genres into their performance, and became famous for their anti-commercial stance (cheap tickets, no merchandise, etc.) and DIY ethic.

Janis Joplin – She’d have almost no shot at fame today. She doesn’t have the look to be a music video idol and voices like hers don’t sell in the age of bubblegum, Auto Tune and American Idol. So, in other words, she could be devastatingly good while that stuff could be depressingly bad.

Lynyrd Skynyrd – Skynyrd at their best almost makes me want to excuse Confederate flag bumper stickers. Almost.

paulmccartneyPaul McCartney – Inarguably the Beatle with the most successful solo career, Paul may very well also be the most respected, admired and beloved figure in pop music history (even when the critics were trashing him). He’s had a few dips and disasters along the way, but the dude could go on tour today with nothing from the Beatles catalog and still blow the crowd away at every stop.

Poster Children – I’ll always have great fondness for my very first indie rock obsession, but unlike most other independent wunderkinds of the era, there’s been very little hindsight correction and blogosphere rediscovery for this foursome, which is a bummer. They never really had a legitimate chance to make it on here, but I’m always willing to give them due accolade when available.

Roxy Music – Sleek and sexy, arty and experimental, dynamic and romantic, cohesive yet yanked on all corners by the myriad personalities within, Roxy Music almost never gets the cred they deserve. Glam guitars and nasty rock rhythms bounced off of saxophones and synthesizers; Bryan Ferry, Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay, Paul Thompson, Brian Eno…what a lineup. I had to mention ‘em as a near-miss.

Sigur Rós – ‘Cause even Jimmy Page had difficulty making bowed guitar look cool.

stereolabStereolab – Some of their album names: Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night. Emperor Tomato Ketchup. Margerine Eclipse. Refried Ectoplasm. Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements. Oscillons from the Anti-Sun. Oh, and they produced some amazing, dreamlike kraut-lounge-pop music, too.

Tom Waits – With an instantly familiar voice and uniquely idiosyncratic style, Waits always tugged at the line separating the abstract and accessible, but even when he came well short of profound, you still admired his weirdly engaging gift for rhythms, arrangements, and embracing outcasts.

A Tribe Called Quest – The best of the Native Tongues Posse and one of the most intelligent acts in all of hip hop, A Tribe Called Quest stressed socially-conscious lyricism at a time when blood-feuding gangsta rap was all the rage. Jazz seemed too “classy” and “abstract” for innovation in a wirebeat-and-rhyme-based form, but Tribe proved us all wrong.

Wire – This was the last one to get cut out, so count ‘em at #101, if you like. In regards to the post-punk model as influence, introducing artiness to a form whose previous art could only be recognized by its willingness (even eagerness) to deface those perceptions, and as tense catch-and-release exhilaration, not many groups were ever better.

So if you’re wondering if this little series here is going to be largely of personal preference or largely of critical evaluation, expect both. No matter how popular or respected an act is, I’m not giving them an honorific if I’m not mesmerized in some way; meanwhile, I’m certainly not considering any guilty pleasure types even if I happen to shamefully love them a whole lot.

As I have from the beginning, I’m stressing some semblance of variety—cherrypicking artists from superstars to indie fixtures performing many different styles from many different eras for a full range of excellence—but without sacrificing integrity or honesty just to shoehorn in some obscure/unpopular act to be “cool” or some mid-range mega-seller that the indiscriminate masses worship to be “populist.” Meanwhile, there are some enormously important and beloved performers out there that won’t climb as high as many would expect; likewise, there are some artists that I adore and listen to all the time that had to be knocked down a few notches to make room for some of the inventors, groundbreakers and innovators that paved the way for them. It’s not a competition to see who’s the best, or the most important, or the most influential, or the most beloved—that’s why I love the indistinct wiggle room of the term “Top 100.”

Despite my attempts at eclecticism in both time period and genre, I admit that it’s male-dominated and hopelessly Anglo-cized (I just don’t listen to enough Latin and Asian music). But, hey, I’m a white American male, so I stick with what I know. But by all means, correct any of my grave injustices as you see fit in the comments.

So tune in tomorrow to begin the countdown at #100 through #91. And a promise to you all here and now: absolutely no Air Supply.

[Intro & Runners Up] [100-91] [90-81] [80-71] [70-61] [60-51]
[50-46] [45-41] [40-36] [35-31] [30-26] [25-21]
[20] [19] [18] [17] [16] [15] [14] [13] [12] [11]
[10] [9] [8] [7] [6] [5] [4] [3] [2] [1]


Matt Medlock


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