Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Artists (#90-81)


Today we've got some rampaging punks, a mellow folk rocker, a gang bringing the funk, and more. Check 'em out below.

They don’t have the deepest body of work and their style (frequently described fairly as “nocturnal” and “morphine drip”) tends to create as much alienation as fixation, but Portishead certainly has reliability down pat—three albums, all three exceptionally good—and even though they weren’t portishead1without precedent and have influenced the sound of numerous acts since, no one did this sort of thing more than 75% as strongly.

They emerged shortly after Massive Attack and together pretty much invented trip hop (originally known as the “Bristol sound,” named after both groups’ homebase), one of those musical subgenres like krautrock and Arabesque where few artists explicitly produce the “genuine” sound, but its characteristics detail and underscore hundreds of songs and albums in the aftermath. Its calling card was stuttering, turntable-style samples and beats, generally shrouded in shadowy, atmospheric pools of chill-out downtempo. The productions arranged by Adrian Utley and Geoff Barrow were more complex and absorbing than most of their peers’, but what really set Portishead apart was Beth Gibbons, whose wounded, wraithlike, but all-too-human voice instilled intense smolder and sorrow portishead2into the songs—like Jónsi Birgisson’s Vonlenska, the words matter far less than the tone, and the listener knows exactly how to feel regardless.

Portishead refused to be shackled by the distinctive style, though. After a nearly seven-year hiatus starting at the end of the 90s, they returned with Third, unveiling a much more expansive and adventurous sound; estrangement proved impossible, though, because it was still so specifically a part of who they are even while they embraced industrial beats, more frenetic tempos, and propulsive psychedelia in addition to their usual thrusts of acid, spooky cabaret, and long, winding traces of jazz. As it was with the restless, diverse pop of their debut and the dark, controlled fixations of their eponymous follow-up, Portishead’s records demand focused attention but can enhance or dampen the mood of every corner the echoing whisper reaches. All three musicians have an instinctive relationship as performers and producers, so engrossed in the details of texture and mood that you can’t imagine the group carrying on with a replacement. I can’t even listen to old, scarred vinyls crackle anymore without thinking of them.

Sour Times
Glory Box
All Mine
Only You
The Rip

Also endorsed: Massive Attack, Tricky, Laika

Since they only lasted a little over two years, releasing just a handful of singles and one proper LP (which was a double-sided vinyl filled out by some of those singles), I have a hard time justifying ranking the Sex Pistols any higher than this, though there are a lot of people out there who’d try. After all, they were, are, and always will be the most famous punk rock band of all time. In the sexpistols1sphere of influence, they must take a distant back-up trophy to both the proto-punks and the Ramones (who taught all the Brits how to do it), but they were the ones to really embrace the “punk” ethos. A bunch of nasty, nihilistic youths who didn’t give a f-ck about anyone (least of all their own fans and the critics who alternately hailed and trashed them), they could only functionally play their instruments—always messed up on heroin, Sid Vicious may be the worst bassist to ever appear on a gold record—and they had no choice but to self-destruct because carrying on would have been far too “safe.” But long after burning out and beating it, they remain almost unconscionably admired. They certainly never asked for it.

They trash the royal family in “God Save the Queen” (one of the most controversial hit singles ever released), claim to be an Anti-Christ anarchist that’s gets “pissed, destroy!” on “Anarchy in the UK,” eviscerate the EMI label, shred abortionists and women in general, flog political tract, and use the word “bollocks” in their album title (a fairly severe profanity in England). But through it all, they had a naturalistic talent for predictable song structure patterns and hard-fought hooks—sexpistols2underneath all of the rancorous guitar riffs and believable lyrical hatred, they were a pop band. And amidst all that pessimism and bile, they actually had reasonable things to say.

Despite his best efforts to be a snarling, snide little goblin of a mouthpiece, Johnny Rotten (John Lydon) had smugly odious charisma; he was a truly memorable frontman at a time when the sensitive softies and arena rock clones couldn’t have had less personality if they tried. Lydon sounded like he was chewing on the throats of his targets, so he had to over-articulate to make sure the torn flesh in his teeth didn’t obscure his rants. If the Pistols didn’t sound authentic, they’d have been a nice, little performance piece with catchy angles and well-calculated energy. But they weren’t phonies, and for instilling danger, rancor, disgust and aggression into a stagnant pop community, they’ve earned their legendary status.

Anarchy in the UK
God Save the Queen
Pretty Vacant
Holidays in the Sun
No One Is Innocent
(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone

Also endorsed: Public Image Ltd., the Adverts, the Damned

tvontheradio1Now here is a band that echoes of the tried-but-true phrase, “the possibilities are endless.” Being from Brooklyn helped TV on the Radio’s cause of going nationwide with their distinctive brand of indie rock, without borders or restrictions. They’re an act that can pen great pop songs, stretch out for mesmeric dirges, be incandescently gorgeous, repulsively grimy, crank out a sex jam as deftly as a fiery, political number, be restrained and mysterious, and then jar your nerves with in-your-face force.

No one in their vicinity has a mouthpiece like Tunde Adebimpe and no one produces a sound like Dave Sitek. Kyp Malone’s impossibly high falsetto added harmonic soul to the disjointed emotion fueling their songs. They roll up characteristics of Bowie, Gabriel, Prince, Siouxsie and Earth, Wind & Fire, yet still sound disarmingly original—I mean, who has the gall to put a capella on a rock album anymore? A proud favorite of theirs is the Pixies, but they take the quiet/loud approach in a different direction. Instead of simply raising volume and intensity, they instill introductory passages tvontheradio2with subtle anonymity and then come in out of left field with a huge drum kick or strident chord that surges sky high. At their hookiest, still deeply atmospheric; at their most sprawling and defeated, still incredibly catchy. It’s the notion of art rock as stadium-size but never obvious.

Without Adebimpe and Malone, the songs would lack the soul, a conflagration of desperation, confusion, eroticism and intangibles that probably don’t even occur to the songwriters. Without Sitek, the songs would be harmonic but without the concurrent or resisting textures. While no doubt the band’s songs thrive on spot-on grooves and looped hooks and inspiring vocals, it’s that texture that really defines their sound—bristling, abstract noises that fly in and out, washed away without a moment’s thought only to return a minute later with even greater snarl and frightening mystique. That these appearances and retreats, buffed by dense, furrowing instrumentation both live and electronic, can sound wholly organic is another key to their success—how many other producers wish they could produce a detailed and eclectic sound that naturally signifies uninterrupted widescreen action? And nothing is obvious from the melodies down to the lyrics; as if I actually needed another reason to play one of their records again and again.

Staring at the Sun
I Was a Lover
Wolf Like Me
Dancing Choose
Family Tree

Also endorsed: Pere Ubu, Interpol, Kate Bush

For those who prefer to listen to music on the low end of the dial, there probably isn’t a more torturously-anticipated (or feared) album-yet-to-be as whatever My Bloody Valentine still might have up their sleeve. In 1991 there came Loveless and it almost singlehandedly killed the band and virtually the entire deep-pocket genre for a long while. They’ve released no new studio material mybloodyvalentine1since then and were defunct for more than a decade before they began performing together again for the occasional gig and festival appearance and working on new material. It wasn’t a matter of, “Well, we can’t top this,” or, “How could we possibly not disappoint?” Kevin Shields turned into Brian Wilson and kept scrapping anything new he developed while his state of mind deteriorated severely. There was simply no way to follow it. No direction to be set upon that made any logical sense. It came, it saw, it conquered, it’s over. But MBV isn’t here because of just one little record.

They began life in the mid-80s, rather unassuming, not particularly impressive, lacking notably signature components, dropping EP after EP trying to figure out just who they were. Primary vocalist Dave Conway departed shortly after the Sunny Sundae Smile EP and Bilinda Butcher came aboard and joined with a reluctant Shields to form a vocalizing pair. Their early squalid post-punk sound began taking on attributes of Cocteau Twins’ dream pop theatrics and they started exploring the ideas of digital reverb and glissando creating “pink noise,” impenetrable walls of unconventionally-tuned guitar and keyboard distortion that transformed pure, shrieking noise into something beautifully hallucinatory. But even as they created wintry, woolly landscapes like “To Here Knows When,” they didn’t lose their affection for melodies and muscle, as signified by throttling rockers like “Feed Me With Your Kiss” and rapturous dance pop songs like “Soon.”

mybloodyvalentine2As a live act, they were enormously divisive. They would unleash screeching peals of feedback and distorted notes and just hold them for ten, twenty, thirty minutes or more, freezing the sound they unearthed like a wailing beacon—the kind of “performance art” I can respect for intent and boldness, but would probably want to wander away from long before the curtain call. But that proves they weren’t pretenders in their aesthetic—they believed in the beauty and authority of unconventional noise, sharpened from dusty fuzz to diamond scars by instinct, while “accidentally” supplanting the abrasive chaos with hypnotic, surging splendor.

I find it impossible to believe that we won’t eventually hear the songs and techniques that Shields has been fooling around with for the last two decades, but whether Loveless is their final legitimate statement or not, what they did not just for the shoegaze genre but all forms of abstract and experimental pop music that followed is a legacy almost any musician would die to have.

Sunny Sundae Smile
You Made Me Realise
(When You Wake) You’re Still in a Dream
Feed Me With Your Kiss
Only Shallow
When You Sleep

Also endorsed: Cocteau Twins, Yo La Tengo, the Jesus and Mary Chain

georgeharrison1In a group best known today for the writing process, multi-instrument application, studio ingenuity, and breaking pop music boundaries, he was the true virtuoso, one of the great guitarists of his time, producing a warm sound and shimmering texture (and one of the only ones to really wow the world at the time without being almost entirely indebted to the blues—his “plucking style” came from country, rockabilly and skiffle). He was the quiet one, the spiritual one, the underrated one…the “other” one. In a recent poll of average Americans I saw, when asked who his/her favorite Beatle was, he finished fourth, and way behind John (first) and Paul (second). And even though he never topped the seemingly impossible high of his immediate post-Beatles career (All Things Must Pass), he carved out a nice little second (and third and even fourth) act in his professional career.

I am, of course, referring to George Harrison (as if that big banner above didn’t give it away). And despite the occasion of being garishly overlooked as a driving force of the most famous rock band in history, he was actually the most immediately successful on his own, being the first Beatle to score a #1 after the group’s collapse (“My Sweet Lord”), and had far and away the most popular 1970 “debut.” But after that (and the less successful and underrated US chart-topper Living in the Material World), only his devoted fans treated his solo canon with more than a passing interest; most instead chose to listen to his occasional pop hit (“When We Was Fab,” “I Got My Mind Set on You,” “All Those Years Ago”) and treat him as a venerable monument of the past instead of a musician still hard at work. Teaming with Jeff Lynne in the late-80s—as a producer of Harrison’s georgeharrison2platinum-selling Cloud Nine album and together as two of the five pieces of the “ultimate supergroup,” the Traveling Wilburys—was the last major maneuver he did as a solo studio musician during his lifetime.

His legacy with the Beatles is set in stone (and impossible to argue), and while his solo career often gets overlooked, even his staunchest of critics will confess in recognizing “scattered” appeal. And though he wasn’t the first musician to bring the music, culture and mysticism of India and the Far East to the western world, no one else had as attentive an audience. Meanwhile, actions in life and artistry insisted it was no “phase” or “calculated scheme”—he lived and breathed it.

Harrison had his periods of productive slumber, as most veterans do, and a span in the 90s where he all but disappeared from the world outside of classic rock radio and his work on The Beatles Anthology series. But while it would be a stretch to call his tragically under-the-radar, tragic in-posthumous-circumstance 2002 album Brainwashed a comeback, he proved he was still a fascinating artist before and after his untimely death the previous year. Every guitar on the planet gently wept that day.

What Is Life
Isn’t It a Pity
My Sweet Lord
Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)
Living in a Material World
All Those Years Ago
When We Was Fab
Any Road

Also endorsed: The Auteurs, Jeff Buckley, Oasis

Gang of Four wasn’t furtive about melding wiry punk’s desperation with Teutonic funk’s elastic tension, but it seems less bold today when you hear the confusion in hundreds of modern bands, from Minutemen to the Chili Peppers and everything in the 2000s’ “dance punk” revolution and arty new wave revival. The staccato, tin foil-tuned guitars clack with brittle precision over a tightly-gangoffour1wound, twitchy backbeat snapping like rubber bands; reedy additions of dub and reggae could be heard in post-punk’s transition towards no wave. Their early records sound ready to crack and crumble to pieces every five or six seconds, and they performed so stark and anxious that it wouldn’t have been a surprise if they were set to self-destruct before tomorrow’s parties. Pop music could stand a little more threat like that.

As important as they were to developing post-punk’s blistering but intoxicatingly rhythmic appeal, I still probably need to stress how important their political motivations were. As if their name didn’t give it away, they thrived on terse socio-political liberation without having clearly defined motivations of viewpoints (angry and common-voice Democratic, but also neo-Marxist and critical of consumerism, labor forces and unscrupulous capitalism). Rolling Stone even declared them to be “the best politically-motivated band in rock & roll.” And they stuck to their guns—when they refused to change a lyric, they lost the chance to perform on Top of the Pops, which might have thrust them towards the mainstream.

gangoffour2It was no deliberated tactic towards that mainstream that saw their albums in the early 80s moving towards a more artful disco/dance sound (you could dance to their early work, too, if you didn’t mind all the exhaustion and acrimony). The sharp corners weren’t even dulled that much—there was just more pieces to the texture, and chic Chic-style hook additions. But they never lost their craft for confrontational politics (and gasp, gasp, not even just more-of-the-same-leftism). For those first three LPs, the concrete critique, the “entertainment” of its make-or-break last gasps, those angles and squeezed spaces, and its model for the future, they’re one of the greatest and most important of all post-punk bands.

Damaged Goods
At Home He’s a Tourist
What We All Want
We Live As We Dream, Alone
It Is Not Enough
Is It Love?

Also endorsed: Television, Mission of Burma, the Embarrassment

They were dour and dirty and hailed from the Pacific Northwest, so they fit in easily with the so-called grunge scene, even though they were far more bombastic and heavy metal than the ilk tended to be. As such, they were “the Led Zeppelin” of that collective, though they preferred soundgarden1griping and wallowing to getting busy with hot chicks and Hobbits. And while they were hugely popular in their day (and still get their songs recycled endlessly on rock radio), they can easily be discarded as a product of their time. I can only assume the hindsight disinterest arises chiefly because their style begat a whole mess of generic junk onto the airwaves. N.W.A. brought about the same; where’s their backlash?

Their early records were unkempt and ferocious; low on engaging hooks and murkily produced (though still clean by early grunge standards), but still rather refreshing today because they weren’t as omnipresent in the land of 90s hard rock. As they sorted through their vague hang-ups and furies, the songwriting sharpened so that by the time Louder Than Love came around, they were a reasonable force to be reckoned with. Song titles like “Big Dumb Sex” and “Full on Kevin’s Mom” probably sound more at home in Mudhoney’s hands, but carnage was always more critical than purpose. Badmotorfinger wasn’t as epochal to the scene as that same year’s Nevermind and Ten, but it sold reasonably well; their real breakthrough was Superunknown, seventy exhausting but unforgettable minutes of ripping, roaring stuff that appeased the fans and vacuumed up a whole host of new ones.

soundgarden2Cornell’s banshee-like wail might not have been as engaging as Robert Plant’s, but it might have been even more physically powerful (like Steve Perry surrounded by down-tuned Sabbath chords); Kim Thayil, meanwhile, was surely no Jimmy Page, though some of the swagger shines through. Enough of that Zep trade-back bullshit, though—Soundgarden’s import to not just their Seattle scene but the entire hard rock community is what matters most after memorizing the band’s multitude of excellent album cuts. Their ascension coincided with Sub Pop’s expansion and brought a lot of the early underground attention to “grunge” across the country. And as much as Nirvana “killed” hair metal, Soundgarden existed in the same so-called reputable frame as those cheesy spandex peddlers, and did what they could to reinstate the dark, grinding technical mastery, punishing volume and bleak attitude that the style was founded upon. They made room for metal in alternative rock, which used to try its damnedest to sound nothing like Ozzy or Iron Maiden. And if you can reach down through the murk and distortion, you discover just how daring and experimental they could be even while playing to the “big, dumb” genre attributes. But go ahead and bang your head away to the brute force; I usually do.

Ugly Truth
Jesus Christ Pose
Slaves and Bulldozers
Let Me Drown
Head Down
The Day I Tried to Live
Pretty Noose
Blow Up the Outside World

Also endorsed: Temple of the Dog, Green River, Screaming Trees

paulsimon1When the kids were in their rooms listening to Robin Zander sing, “Mommy’s all right, Daddy’s all right, they just seem a little weird,” their mommies and daddies were probably downstairs listening to Paul Simon records. It’s a marvel he was ever remotely “hip” when running away with Art Garfunkel’s harmonies, reading labels off the spice rack, and blending pale and wispy into the clouds; he certainly wasn’t “hip” after branching out on his own and broadening his palette (who could be after naming an album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon?). His career has mostly been based around quiet movements and steady reaction—there aren’t a lot of guys blasting his tunes out of their stereos and not a lot of ladies throwing their panties at him on stage. But Simon was still able to quietly produce an impressive body of work while retaining tremendous fan interest—when I hear the idea of a “concert in the park,” I automatically think of him, and there are seated middle-aged enthusiasts as far as the eye can see.

As half of the most famous folk rock duo to ever play, Simon helped bring sophistication to the milquetoast, elevating slight stories and wistful thoughts to the level of anthem. For all of his and Garfunkel’s much-vaunted harmonic grace, it could sometimes lack personality when simply drawn out for pretty, maudlin theatrics. But he proved himself more than capable of ambitious expression paulsimon2with his self-named solo album, affirming a deft touch for arrangements and melodies, providing ample demonstration of previously speculated eclecticism, and a lithe vocal range that can inflict not only the easier-absorbed wryness but also the sentimentalism that might mush otherwise.

After his early solo successes, Simon drifted downwards for nearly a decade, losing both inspiration and an audience (minus the half million gathered to see him reunite with Art), until further fascination with world music reignited his career. First with Graceland’s South African sounds and then with The Rhythm of the Saints’ Brazilian tones, he found himself returning to critical and commercial prominence. While he had colored earlier work with international sounds before, this newfound dedication to working with melody and beat reinvented the way he wrote music—now, rhythm came first and lyrics last. Good voice, good songwriting, good melodies, good intentions, good philanthropist, good influence; someone as “vanilla” as Simon can’t aspire for anything greater, right?

The Sound of Silence [Simon and Garfunkel]
The Boxer [Simon and Garfunkel]
Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard
Still Crazy After All These Years
Late in the Evening
Diamonds in the Soles of Her Shoes
You Can Call Me Al

Also endorsed: James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Crosby Stills & Nash

The yin and the yang balance has rarely been more clearly defined than in the duo OutKast. Both MCs, André “3000” Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton, have similar skills and strengths—chief among them, an ear for a good beat/melody and verbal dexterity and velocity—but come from very different “schools.” Andre rules an experimental space age world where intergalactic psychedelia outkast1trades quips with skronky, metallic funk, jigsaw pop, sensual jazz, and what can best be described as “laser rock.” Antwan is more Dirty South earthbound but takes no main roads—he pulls back and forth between gritty urban darkness and spitshine slick, sensual pimp-purring. But even in their distinct personalities, they’re compliant to the whims of the comrade/competitor: André 3000 isn’t “just” an alien messiah and Big Boi isn’t “just” a crunked-out playa. They strut well-plotted but unpredictable lines across strangely appealing terrain, undulating back and forth on their circuits with spotlight-grabbing and ego-satisfying masking musical discipline.

Their career hasn’t been a balancing act between the two personalities, though. It’s a game of one-upmanship, not unlike what John and Paul were up to in the 1960s. Each time out, they pushed the envelope even further with what they wanted to do. Their first two LPs seem relatively modest at this point, both in the hooks/productions and ambition of ideas, but still have a restless, melodic urgency. With Aquemini and Stankonia, their talents exhibited the frustrations of being limited by so much natural restriction; choosing to tear it out in whatever way they pleased was a blessing and a curse. By ’03, they were too powerful to even insist on the Siamese principle, and outkast2released a double LP split by their individual concepts. And the companion album to the film Idlewild exemplified impatience for modern rap period, focusing on jazz, soul, ragtime, jive and vaudeville. One thing in their favor: the idealistic splintering seems amicable.

They never worked out the kinks of inconsistency—no album of theirs doesn’t contain at least five or ten minutes of mediocre, misguided or superfluous music—but when you go out on the ledge to prove vitality in a genre that more often wheezes than flourishes, you’re going to take risks that don’t pay off. For that boldness, and for their ability to devise several of the most jaw-dropping and unforgettable rap/R&B songs of the last decade and a half, they’ve earned every last morsel of their acclaim.

Player’s Ball
Elevators (Me & You)
Skew It on the Bar-B
Gasoline Dreams
Ms. Jackson
Hey Ya!
The Way You Move

Also endorsed: De La Soul, Gnarls Barkley, the Roots

pfunk1Judging by appearance alone, George Clinton was not from Earth. Likewise, the P-Funk all-stars came from either the same planet as Clinton or a different galaxy altogether. If you include attitude, style and m.o. to the mix, you just keep thinking deeper and deeper into outer space. All the way, in fact, to the point where the Mothership Connection art looks more like a photograph than illustration. It’s not just the cosmic psychedelia, but the details in their mythology, where the Funk instigated the Big Bang Theory. Taking all of the musical attributes, pumping it up to a garishly exaggerated degree (funk music as translated through brassy flamboyance and trashy pulp fiction), envisioning their riotous riot gear (they dressed like they wanted to be the most outrageous reveler in the room when the New Years ball landed), and slip-sliding through their unapologetic jargon (song titles including, “(Gloryhallastoopid) Pin the Tail on the Funky,” “Dr. Funkenstein,” “Supergroovalitisprosifunkstication,” “Butt-to-Butt Resuscitation,” etc.), you could describe Parliament-Funkadelic as funksploitation.

Just being a bunch of characters doesn’t grant you immortality, though. Underneath the fashion of excess and lovably goofy vernacular were great musicians, all driven towards creating an implacable groove that was still malleable enough to bend to their whims. As a Cincinnati lad, of pfunk2course I knew of Bootsy Collins, with his influential rubbery bass guitar, and everyone digs Eddie Hazel’s scorching psychedelic guitar riffs and Bernie Worrell’s dynamic keyboard and synthesizer sounds. They did a better job of making funk jams the ultimate party sound than any of their mid-70s peers, including Kool & the Gang, Earth, Wind & Fire, and the Ohio Players.

They began life as an R&B group in the 50s; by the end of the 60s, they became a pair of pet projects for Clinton, expressing different musical moods: Funkadelic had a little more edge and political agenda and Parliament had a little more zaniness and eccentric energy. But when struck together like Wonder Twin rings (“Form of…Boogiesaurus!” “Shape of…Funktopus!”), they opened up the party even more, taking their volatile, endearing vibe out into the streets. It’s the kind of irresistible, grooving nonsense that would get Pigman off the couch, squirming through the pins and needles to get down. That’s right, a PCU reference; as if that’s any less ridiculous than the battle between the intergalactic messiah Starchild and the nemesis who’s too cool to dance, Sir Nose.

Maggot Brain
P. Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)
Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)
Flash Light
One Nation Under a Groove
Aqua Boogie (A Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop)
(Not Just) Knee Deep
Atomic Dog

Also endorsed: Earth, Wind & Fire, the Bar-Kays, Kool & the Gang


Matt Medlock


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