Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Artists (#80-71)


Ten more on the way, including a hip hop group, a pair of soul music icons, several eccentric rockers, and more.

curtismayfield1Anyone trying to disprove the existence of karma can cite Curtis Mayfield as evidence. Here was a wonderful, beautiful, exquisitely talented singer, writer, musician, producer, arranger who was responsible for so many socially-conscious musical treatises and Civil Rights anthems; looking back on all of it, he seemed to be given to the world just to try and change it for the better. Then in the 90s, he was paralyzed from the neck down when stage light equipment fell on him, and then later in the decade his leg was amputated because of diabetes complications, finally dying the day after Christmas in 1999 at the age of 57. Ho ho ho, you bitch called fate.

But there’s no point lingering on the unreasonable, undeserved toll he took late in his life. Mayfield, despite his criticisms of ghetto life and drug abuse in some of his songs, was always an optimist striving for the betterment of African Americans and all of mankind. His career began with the gospel/soul group the Roosters, which later became the Impressions, and his genius as both a composer and singer was witnessed by the stirring, inspirational power of classics like “People Get Ready,” “Choice of Colors,” “It’s All Right” and “Keep on Pushing.” When he left the Impressions, his career was only curtismayfield2just beginning, and he recorded his three best full-lengths right off the bat—his eponymous debut, Roots and Superfly, the blaxploitation film soundtrack that would become one of the most influential soul/funk records in history.

As the so-called “Gentle Genius,” Mayfield’s voice was almost bafflingly soft and understated but he managed to hit every appropriate note. This was especially surprising as his music started drifting into heavy funk territory during the 70s, which conditionally required grand, outspoken voices for enthusiastic release (try comparing him to James Brown). But anyone can get a point across with a bullhorn; but after you go home and settle back to relax, it’s the soft-spoken ones that are more persuasive.

Keep on Pushing [The Impressions]
People Get Ready [The Impressions]
(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go
Move on Up
Get Down
Freddie’s Dead
Do Do Wap Is Strong in Here

Also endorsed: Jerry Butler, Lou Rawls, Isaac Hayes

Mark E. Smith is one of the least likable frontmen in all of pop music. He also happens to be one of the most fascinating. Not because of the things he says, or the way he acts, or anything concrete that can be locked, labeled and left to gather dust. It’s because for all of his band’s different thefall1lineups—some staying similar for many years, others barely even lasting a few months on the touring circuits—he is the Fall and he’s made it an institution by surviving long after his post-punk peers crashed, collapsed and ran out of reasons to carry on.

Thirty-plus years and twenty-eight studio albums is nothing to sneeze at, and while the Fall has had some great ones and some decent ones, I’ve never heard anything that left me completely cold. This is probably because outspoken fan and BBC DJ John Peel was right when he famously said, “They are always different, they are always the same.” The Fall is always the same thing but Smith is never redundant. There’ve been a few stylistic flirtations but never a naked effort to be something that he wasn’t. His job is to toss off various clever, sly, accusatory, confusing, sarcastic and/or bilious rants over noisy, scraping beats, rumbling dirges, and repetitive, rust-scarred riffs. Sometimes the hooks are plentiful and other times the music is just background noise nipping at Smith’s throat. He rarely sings in meter—the unglamorous collages of motorik, garage punk, noise rock and psych-pop usually just serve as a method to beef up his abuse, or offer a grisly but attractive counterpoint (and backbone) to his occasionally directionless tirades.

thefall2But even when Smith rambles mercilessly in strange tangents, the rotating, come-and-go band members hold the beat, raw and repetitive, pounding away on grooves that aren’t exactly funk, not entirely drone, not obviously melodic, or even altogether functional. When Mark’s wife Brix joined the band for a run in the 80s, hooks came to the front a little clearer than before, but early singles like “How I Wrote ‘Elastic Man’” and “Totally Wired” were still catchier. But they were never a singles band (only two of their tunes ever climbed into the UK Top 40 and nothing of theirs ever approached similar status in the States), nor were their albums ever big-sellers either. Cult obsession, on the other hand, was always theirs, and bands as diverse as Sonic Youth, Pavement, Faith No More and the Long Blondes have all named the Fall as being an enormous influence.

How I Wrote “Elastic Man”
Totally Wired
The Classical
Eat Y’Self Fitter
Gut of the Quantifier
Cruiser’s Creek
Free Range
What About Us

Also endorsed: The Saints, Dead Kennedys, Girls Against Boys

To say I can’t sing well is an understatement, so if I ever get into a deep-burnt, soulful mood, I’d prefer Al Green to sing for me (what, can’t I dream?). Likewise, when it’s already been said pretty spot-on by poet Adrian Matejke, I might as well cede to his “understanding” as well.

algreen1“…The whole walk from the ball court, the wise man’s words echoed like somebody’s mama banging on the door: the panties just be slippin’ off when the women hear Al’s voice. Slippin’. Slippin’ because Al hits notes mellow, like the silk that silk wears. His voice is all hardworking night time things. Not fake breasts, but you and your woman, squeezed onto the couch, taking a nap while the aquarium stutters beside you. Nodding off on drizzly days when you should be at work. The first smoke after a glass of fine wine you know you can’t afford. Nobody, not woman or man, knows how to handle Al Green…”

“…[You weren’t Al Green] last night when that woman at the club shut you down: ‘I got a man, blah, blah, blah.’ Hate to tell you, player, but she’s at Al’s place right now asking for an autograph and maybe a little sumpin-sumpin. What is sumpin-sumpin? I don’t know. But Al knows. And I’m sure you’ve heard that old jive about Al getting scalding grits thrown on him. You have to recognize those lies because he would have started singing and those grits would have been in the mix, too. For real. I never believed the algreen2pimp-to-preacher story anyway. The point is, Al’s voice is like g-strings and afro wigs and trying to be quiet when the parents are home. The point is Al Green hums better than most people dream.”

Anyway, God must have been feeling Old Testament wrathful when he stole Al’s focus away from smoky secular seduction for a long series of strict gospel records. But wait, what’s this about I Can’t Stop and Lay It Down? Oh, I suppose all is forgiven now.

I Can’t Get Next to You
Let’s Stay Together
Look What You’ve Done for Me
Call Me
Jesus Is Waiting
Take Me to the River
L-O-V-E (Love)
Stay with Me (By the Sea)

Also endorsed: The Isley Brothers, Ben E. King, Gladys Knight & the Pips

“Sucka MCs check the method and protect ya neck, hip hop’s newest underground assassins are on the scene.”

wutangclan1Hip hop primarily exists in one of two planes: frightening, bitter hyper-reality or permissive fantasy that serves as an escape from that reality. Wu-Tang Clan was one of the very few genre acts to effectively blur those lines—their productions and rhymes reek of the streets and the terror, depression and paranoia that scars that lifestyle, but they also reference the hybrid sport chessboxing, pay respect to Shaolin mythology and kung fu, and brought the declining rags-to-riches life of crime mentality of Mafioso rap back to the mainstream.

All lines are blurred with the Wu, though. Nine-deep, officially, with at least one “partial” member in Cappadonna, and literally dozens of orbiting parties that frequently collaborate and affiliate themselves with the group, the Wu-Tang Clan is bigger than any of its individual members. Those solo personalities were fearless and unapologetic and managed numerous excellent albums on their own when they “diversified their bonds,” but like some sort of nine-piece Voltron, coming together yielded the greatest weapon.

Their finest outing remains “C.R.E.A.M.” with its memorable acronym for Cash Rules Everything Around Me, a sober reflection on how street life as dealers is an ugly maze of consequence. So is it surprising how revolutionary they were built as a collective? They made a name for themselves wutangclan2with one masterful release (1993’s Enter the Wu-Tang) and then furiously spun off from there with countless solo projects and “unofficial” sidetracks, projects and collaborations—making them serious bank in the process. Amidst the menacing soundscapes (largely orchestrated by RZA) they also proved to have a rather maniacal sense of humor, which was helpful in negating the eerie hostility of the “real life” malice (and who can forget affluent Ol’ Dirty Bastard publicly trying to get food stamps just because it was “free money!”?). And just when overexposure threatened to sour their name in the late-90s, steam built up again with the “quiet” release of their third group album The W and a quick return only a year later with Iron Flag. ODB was sidelined permanently by a drug overdose in 2004, but whether solo or as a group, Wu-Tang is a force to be reckoned with beyond genre lines.

Protect Ya Neck
Da Mystery of Chessboxin’
Careful (Click, Click)
I Can’t Go to Sleep
Uzi (Pinky Ring)

Also endorsed: Kool G Rap, Mobb Deep, Nas

whitestripes1Some people love to hate the White Stripes. Here came this stripped down duo, one mangling blues chords and the other pounding out simple drum patterns your eleven-year old cousin could pick up in five minutes, playing this enthusiastic but hardly revolutionary punk-blues music loaded up with the lyrical genre clichés and copped hard rock riffs. Oh, so they throw in a little country now and then, huh? Some Appalachian folk and Southern Gothic? Trivial eccentricities all, harrumph.

But then the buzz translated into strong sales, Meg White’s “serviceable” drumming proved formidable power, Jack White’s “borrowed” riffs blazed louder and bolder than anything circulating on modern rock radio, and suddenly this little indie rock pair became a household name. Now everyone was talking about this White Stripes band, wondering if they’re siblings or exes, digging up their old blues and garage rock vinyls to keep the high alive, marveling at the “quaint” Lego spectacle of the “Fell in Love with a Girl” video, championing them alongside the Strokes as a long-needed “return to rock.” Then and now, everything that Jack has a hand in (producer, writer, performer, just standing near when a photo was taken) becomes an instant critical darling.

whitestripes2And then there’s the music itself—a roaring wall of distortion, drum whacks that pop the ear drums, quaint and splendidly melodic rootsy ballads, wheezing piano leads, strangled slides, guitar thumping low like nasty bass, plinked marimbas, acoustic “twangle,” torrential outpour blues erupting violently at 300 mph, all packaged as if the laments of the heart and the toils of the world are apocalyptic. Jack’s ambitions ultimately proved too large for the modest duo as an interest in such a large variety of sounds and styles eclipsed the restrictions of just a couple of bluesy hellions; they officially called it quits less than a month ago. Considering how quickly punch-drunk assaults like this usually self-destruct, we should be grateful for more than a decade of excellent blues, garage, rock, punk, and all those other little flirtations. I’ll miss them in the cold, cold night.

The Big Three Killed My Baby
Little Bird
Hotel Yorba
Fell in Love with a Girl
Seven Nation Army
Ball and Biscuit
White Moon
Icky Thump

Also endorsed: The Gun Club, the Black Keys, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

A lot of it had to do with my personal selections and willingness, but no group that I’ve regularly listened to in the last decade expanded my understanding of how unusual, unpredictable, and downright crazy pop music can be more than Super Furry Animals. They started out interested in psychedelia and electronic music—which is highly evident in their productions—but they were much more adventurous to be limited by that fusion. Warm, heavenly harmonies clashing with abrasive, superfurryanimals1ear-splitting keyboards, krautrock rubbing elbows with acid jazz as a chaser to a power pop quickie and a predecessor to a druggy epic dirge; they defied any conventional stylistic classification. That’s not hard to believe after learning that they say they’re as influenced by jazz trumpeter/band leader Wynton Marsalis as they are by über-sensitive post-grunge hitmakers Collective Soul. That’s like a filmmaker saying, “I set out to make this movie as Con Air by way of Ingmar Bergman.”

Being as bold and eclectic as that predictably leads to a lot of mixed results—notably, severe highs and lows. Sometimes I’ll find one of their songs and decide I never need to hear it ever again; other times, I’ll find some hook or groove that’s so irrepressible that I repeat the track literally fifteen or twenty times before I move on to something else. Their lovably freaky arrangements seem founded on mellow drugs and shock therapy. Sweet sensations immediately followed by excitable anarchy; sudden turns and sharp angles whipping the listener around until a sigh of relief erupts when their instruments descend into lush, shimmering puddles. Adding to their curious makeup is singer Gruff Rhys, who has an incredibly distinctive voice—a strange sound that feels like it’s being tugged both towards baritone and soprano, and just vibrates out of the throat in between—and is not afraid to occasionally sing in Welsh. Which is just as well since, even when I can parse the lyrics, they’re frequently amusing, weird and/or inscrutable, so why not throw in some homeland flavor that stifles outsiders?

superfurryanimals2Their mannerisms in finding earworms initially seem flighty and impulsive, as if they’re just grabbing anything they can find—the way some of their songs are mixed, they’re dense enough to assume that the Furries didn’t even forget the kitchen sink. But when I can melt inside those thick layers of guitars and keyboards or find those cheeky, genre-diverse hooks (glam, techno, lounge, trip hop, salsa, drum n’ bass...there’s nothing they don’t do well when they really try), there are very few modern pop bands that can stand beside them. Their greatest asset, though, is the sheer exuberance they display when they find those perfect moments. Even when they shuffle through psychedelic drone, there’s a gleaming majesty that peeks through the haze that proves how much they love what they’re doing. And when one of those earworms escapes—big, bulging and buoyant—it’s almost equivalent to first falling in love.

She’s Got Spies
Ice Hockey Hair
Northern Lites
Dacw Hi
Sidewalk Serfer Girl
Shoot Doris Day
Hello Sunshine
Inaugural Trams

Also endorsed: The Beta Band, They Might Be Giants, the Apples in Stereo

brianeno1He’s one of the godfathers of both electronic music and art rock. If he didn’t invent ambient music, then he certainly finished writing the rulebook. He was a member of Roxy Music and helped define their sound. He collaborated with and/or produced music for tons of important figures in pop including David Bowie, U2, Talking Heads, Devo and John Cale. In other words, Brian Eno is a rock god (an admittedly unconventional one, but his divinity is irrefutable). Yet for all of the endless praise bestowed upon him for all of those previously noted advances and efforts, he’s often hideously underrated as a solo performer. He’s always a wingman, a coordinator, a mentor, a provider. For all of his contributions, he deserves consideration among the all-time greats. But even solely in terms of his own individual output, he deserves status as a legend.

His ambient works are intriguing (especially “1/1” from Music for Airports and “An Ending (Ascent)” from Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks), but they’re an acquired taste and require a specific mood. The sonic collages can also be strange and difficult, but easier to interpret and, in each listener’s preferences, easier to decide how it can be judged (or idealized). But no matter the strange detours and foreboding landscapes he crafted on classic “rock” LPs like Another Green World and Before and After Science, he also mastered pop music while increasing instrumental tension, distancing emotion without detaching, and studying both rhythms and textures and how they can be used as irregular hooks brianeno2where none would exist without them. Big surprise that I would go all “clinical” and “artsy” in describing them; for the sake of decreasing my pretentiousness a few degrees, may I also say that “Backwater” is, like, really catchy and “Baby’s on Fire” has a title almost as cool as that wicked guitar solo?

But, then again, this is the sort of guy who would pull out an entire album based on experiments in “generative composition” (algorithmic, at that) and also produce records for spiritual, emotive rock “messiahs” like U2 and Coldplay. And busy, busy, busy he’s been his entire career doing his own stuff, doing his producing, his collaborations, elevating the two Davids to heights they probably wouldn’t have reached on their own, and cranking out enough art rock and ambient experiments to keep both schools sated for a lifetime. But evaluate that Fripptronics thing on your own time.

The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch
Baby’s on Fire
Third Uncle
St. Elmo’s Fire
No One Receiving
Fractal Zoom

Also endorsed: Genesis, John Cale, Aphex Twin

At a time when being a rock star meant being Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton, where did Elton John fit in? Where was the mystique, the danger, the recklessness, the cocksure strut, the holy fire? Shit, where was the guitar? Elton John, huddled over his piano with eltonjohn1goofy glasses and gaudy suit, surely had no chance. But he and Bernie Taupin wrote some incredible songs, funky and brassy and generous and melodic and just utterly seminal. While Taupin touched on both the slight and the sentimental, Elton filled the tunes with soft hues and/or glitzy bravado as necessary. And he played that piano like a man possessed, pounding it and pulverizing it and becoming “one” with it, something rarely seen since Jerry Lee Lewis’ heyday. And even sitting on that bench in hilariously ridiculous masquerades, he had a strange sort of swagger; when he actually bothered to take those glasses off, there was even a twinkle. He needed that twinkle even if he worked damn hard to obscure it.

He started as a tavern pianist and easy listening songwriter with Taupin in the 60s; many years later, he would win an Oscar, release the best-selling single of all time (the “Candle in the Wind” tribute to Princess Di), and record an album with Leon Russell, the Master of Space and Time. But John’s most fruitful period was in the early-to-mid-70s where he recorded one classic LP after eltonjohn2another, released one hit single after another. From the romantic pop ballad “Your Song” through the rollicking rocker “Crocodile Rock” and into the glam phase that yielded “Bennie and the Jets” and “The Bitch Is Back” and into the fantasy suicide of Edith Piaf on “Cage the Songbird,” he and Taupin proved an unstoppable machine. That the remainder of his career was scattered with bright moments isn’t a testament to consistency, but to good will.

As a stage show, outrageous. As a pianist, passionate. As a writer, the better half of a pair. As an activist, commendable. As a singer, eccentric. As a fashionista, screwball. As an aging rocker (unless Leather Jackets and Sleeping with the Past lied to me), well, at least he’s got a golden boy. As an icon, inescapable.

Your Song
Tiny Dancer
Honky Cat
Crocodile Rock
Bennie and the Jets
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
The Bitch Is Back
I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues

Also endorsed: Jerry Lee Lewis, Ben Folds Five, Scissor Sisters

Fearless, eccentrically weird, and musically conflicted, the Flaming Lips are kind of like the American indie rock version of Super Furry Animals (though I suppose since the Lips predate the Furries, really it’s “SFA is like the Welsh hyper-pop version of the Lips”). If possible, they may be even weirder, founded on similar principles but ejected further into the vacuum of space.

flaminglips1The stories of how they got to where they are now alone are worth immortality in the book of crazy rock n’ roll legend/rumor. Stealing their instruments from a church hall, naming themselves after a dream where frontman Wayne Coyne was kissed by the Virgin Mary set ablaze, rising to underground prominence while supporting Candlebox (of all bands), appearing on Beverly Hills 90210, having the gall to record the 4-CD experimental sound caper Zaireeka (where all four discs need to played simultaneously from four different machines), scoring the honor of Oklahoma’s official rock song with “Do You Realize??” and so on. How their music changed, ruptured, amassed and dissolved during their approaching-thirty-year career is worth plenty of space in a completely different book. They began as a psych-punk band; by the start of the 90s, they were incorporating diverse, even surreal changes, being both more “alternative rock” and flirting with noise pop and more experimental psychedelic elements. Then they went “space rock big” and “baroque pop lush” for their synth-symphonic opus The Soft Bulletin, which marked a major turn for the band; in addition to greater critical and commercial attention, Coyne’s voice began erupting with melodic, high-fructose passion, exposing one of aesthete-indie’s greatest formal vocalists. Then they closed out the 00s with an expectedly bizarre “sci-fi holiday film,” (Christmas on Mars), one of their boldest, most outlandish and explosive albums (Embryonic), and a full-length “cover” of Pink flaminglips2Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (appropriately named The Flaming Lips and Stardeath and White Dwarfs with Henry Rollins and Peaches Doing The Dark Side of the Moon).

No matter how bleak or sober they can become (mortality played a major thematic role in both The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots), the Lips deliver their songs with an abundance of sly eccentricity, maverick sonic hysteria, cheerful exuberance, or heartbreaking optimism. They’re so unusual and idiosyncratic but can also be almost fatally human, and they can produce some seriously cosmic rock but know not to “over-Water(s)” their treatments. And their stage shows have to be seen to be believed (even if it’s through a fuzzy little monitor)—what concert doesn’t automatically become more awesome with the addition of confetti downpours, giant plastic bubbles and puppets?

Unconsciously Screamin’
Moth in the Incubator
Guy Who Got a Headache and Accidentally Saves the World
Race for the Prize
Waitin’ for a Superman
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1
The W.A.N.D. (The Will Always Negates Defeat)
Convinced of the Hex

Also endorsed: Mercury Rev, Secret Machines, the B-52s

I love the Decemberists for a lot of the same reasons as why some people hate them. They’re hyper-literate storytellers of fabled, antiquated settings, purging various accounts of time-honored themes: love (and the hazards of), revenge (and the mariner who sought it), danger (under constant threat of pirates and Queen Medb), being nerdy (and losing the girl to the quarterback). They’ve got their “romantics” side but don’t shy away from dark, grisly details, yet they frame their troubles like summarized classic lit, splashy stage productions, and epic poetry, and almost never decemberists1plainly speak from their own thoughts, feelings and experiences. Their folksy, rhapsodic melodies are built delicately but performed robustly. When they tickle their prog rock fancies, they really commit to them. They use “highfalutin” instruments like the melodica, upright bass, hurdy-gurdy, Wurlitzer organ and bouzouki. So, they’re a rock band that doesn’t “rock out” in predictable patterns or methods. Isn’t that better than the same tired clichés? If there’s room for, “I want to rock! (rock!),” and, “Oh, black Betty, bam-ba-lam,” in music, then why not, “To tell the tale of the Jewess and the Mandarin Chinese boy/He led her down from her gilded canopy of cloth”?

They certainly don’t look like rock stars; more like a glee club or theater troupe. Colin Meloy’s broad but affected voice can simmer delicately or explode with grim triumph, but traditionally serves as a smooth narrator’s plea. Chris Funk doesn’t act like a guitar god, especially when their pastoral attributes deafen jerking chords for hazy jangle, but songs like “The Tain” and “When the War Came” show him flexing mighty muscle. The rhythm section as carried out by the likes of Nate Query, Rachel Blumberg and John Moen is spry when the melodies are perky, foreboding when they go grim. And multi-instrumentalist Jenny Conlee (who should wear a name tag that has “secret weapon” scribbled on it) brings a multitude of organs, pianos, keyboards, synthesizers, accordions, string arrangements and more to beef up the theatrical sweeps to resemble widescreen cinema.

decemberists2The Decemberists are one of those rare acts where you could read their lyrics without the musical accompaniment and be happy. Which is not to say they’re the greatest lyricists around, but rather that they read like vivid fiction and are dramatic enough without the crescendos, drum kicks and ghostly violins. But once you hear the songs, the words become lonely without the familiar accompaniment. They’ve recorded precious few songs without some kind of musical hook—a subdued melody; a stirring refrain; a faint undercurrent beneath dusty strings and guitar plucks; a grand swell as the various percussive elements align for the bounciest beat outside of power pop; huge, wailing outbursts and churning power riffs as the keyboards shoot for the neon-outlined skies. They linger more than long enough to pore over and study, and instinctive repetition buries many of the tunes in the brain.

It’s not terribly surprising that a large number of people disparage this sort of creative commitment. Their music often demands selective appreciation, not casual excitement. But while most rockers try to be “in the now” (even while retreading old moves), the Decemberists sound appropriately (but newly) “classic.”

Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect
The Soldiering Life
The Tain
Sixteen Military Wives
The Mariner’s Revenge Song
The Island
O Valencia!
The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid

Also endorsed: Neutral Milk Hotel, the Pogues, the Waterboys


Matt Medlock


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