Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Artists (#60-51)


Here's the next ten, featuring some British alternative rockers, a pioneering electronic act, a blue-eyed soul Irishman, and more.


The Swindon, England band XTC either had issues with timing or intentionally tried to march to the beat of a different drum. They were making post-punk/new wave music before punk had reached its limit in the UK; by the time that vogue caught up to audiences, they were already moving on towards an artier sound; by the time the Eno influence finally hit the mainstream, they began xtc1drifting towards a more pastoral, psychedelic pop sound influenced by the Kinks and Beatles. Some might label them as trendsetters, though I don’t think they ever sold well enough to be a direct and profound influence (and the rebirth of Ray, John and Paul never took off again during the 80s). But they’re still a very fascinating outfit—their best-recognized and most controversial song is cheerfully, almost hysterically atheistic—and during their peak years, recorded some of the finest British post-punk and pop around.

Listen to their two best albums back-to-back and you’ll hardly believe it’s even the same groups. Drums and Wires is aptly-named for the beats and wiry guitars, springing flamboyantly through some of the catchiest shit new wave ever produced, from the joyful pop bounce of “Helicopter” to the shattered vocal echoes, dissonant guitars and driving rhythms of crumbling closer “Complicated Game.” Seven years later, Todd Rundgren would produce the Beach Boys-esque sunny melodies and rich harmonies of Skylarking. What ties them together? The warped lyrical viewpoint of songwriters Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding: bitter, smart, snarky, literate, and when laid next to the catchy hooks and warmth of the songs, more xtc2than a little cheekily ironic. Elsewhere, they released some of the most acclaimed but (today and then) overlooked records of their times, including the near-masterpiece English Settlement, their jittery, smarty-arty debut White Music, Black Sea and its sharper melodies and vibrant textures, and their underrated early 90s effort Nonsuch.

XTC without their early spirited, jumpy phases as well as their Bacharach-inspired florid, neo-psychedelic productions later on would feel, if not incomplete, a little emptier. But they play out nearly an entire city’s worth of pop bands over a decade-and-a-half without sounding cheap, easily swayed by trends, or like that famed chameleon: born Jones, called Bowie. It was a natural maturation—the young kids with piss and vigor settling into their wiser adult roles—and one carried out with a cocksure smirk (or outright sneer) masked by terrific pop sensibilities.

Radios in Motion
Making Plans for Nigel
Complicated Game
Generals and Majors
Senses Working Overtime
Ballet for a Rainy Day
Dear God
The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead

Also endorsed: The Zombies, the Soft Boys, the Chills

ratm1Rage Against the Machine came around at the perfect time. As the cliché goes, the apathetic youth of Generation X was stuck in an identity crisis and societal malaise where a lot of ‘em didn’t know nuthin’ and didn’t care about nuthin’ (don’t forget that Beavis and Butthead was satire); something needed to get them up. Rage was a double injection of adrenalin and a brass-knuckled punch to the gut. Your mommy and daddy can have their incensed folk rock political protests and their peaceful hippie demonstrations. You just want to watch the liars, hypocrites, heartless corporations, despots, thieves and murderers burn to the f-cking ground.

Appropriately deemed to be sledgehammer politics, there was even less subtlety in Rage than there was in Public Enemy. And even if the target of their strife somehow eluded you, the general direction was right there in your face (“the machine”). They didn’t canvas a musical backdrop for their rants, either—the music was as violent, harsh and antagonistic as the words. It propelled the point straight to the central nervous system. Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk’s rhythm section was powerful and precise and Tom Morello’s heavy machinery riffs behind those beats created a sound as vulgarly visceral as anything ever created in metal. When they’re tearing it up, I cannot (and I mean, cannot) help but feel like slamming around and headbutting someone until one of us is in a coma. Which, of course, leaves no breathing room for the thematic focus, so Zack de la Rocha hones tirades into long chains of “we’re ratm2not gonna take it” slogans, spit-screaming his accusatory rhetoric like vicious raps over the pummeling music. If he had attempted to be “reasonable” or “fair and balanced” (and not the Fox News version), it would have been obliterated by the instrumental assault.

They’re not always on the offensive, though. Some of their songs, while still seething with indignation, offered simmering, even thoughtful confrontations. Others, like “Revolver” and “Mic Check,” provided opportunities for musical experimentation, especially in Morello’s inventive guitar techniques that could warp, scratch, stutter and screech expressionistically. What might have been most surprising of all, though, was the setting. They came out in ’92 and went defunct by the start of the 00s; discounting reunion tours, their career existed almost entirely during the Clinton presidency—sandwiched between the disenfranchisement of the Reagan years and the Bush travesties, if not a trustworthy time in politics, at least a modestly respectable and promising era. Imagine if they were champing at the bit before or after, though. Kinda frightening. Or maybe they would have made their already textbook observations altogether just too damn obvious.

Killing in the Name
Wake Up
People of the Sun
Bulls on Parade
No Shelter
Guerrilla Radio
Sleep Now in the Fire

Also endorsed: Black Flag, Deftones, Primus

Like Kurt Cobain, Nick Drake wanted to be famous but shunned the idea of it when opportunity presented itself. Unlike Cobain, though, he never became a star, a sensation, a major player, a voice of a generation, a songwriter whose every move was studied and analyzed. He didn’t sell nickdrake1well, refused to promote his music and do interviews, and when fame eluded him, he’d become even more depressed and withdrawn. He was abjectly graceful and confident as a performer and songwriter, but also wearily grave and intimately melancholy. As one of the folkies of the late-60s/early-70s era, he may not have been a populist force like James Taylor, Joni Mitchell or Carole King, but his gift for melody and terse lyrical statements made them somehow sparser and bolder.

Drake was barely twenty-one when he recorded his debut album; he was driven to unofficially retire from music when he was only twenty-four, though he attempted a return to music in 1974; he was dead at twenty-six from an apparent suicide. What his career lacked in longevity or memorable events, it made up for in brusque brilliance—three albums, all three at least approaching masterwork status. The wise-before-his-years reflections of Five Leaves Left, the slick accompaniments and rich tableaus of Bryter Layter, the spartan, rueful Pink Moon set—it’s a small canon, but the envy of hundreds if not thousands of folk musicians.

nickdrake2He was one of those so-called “quiet souls,” almost painfully shy, and with interpersonal relationships that reflected his introverted nature (his relationship with the “love of his life” was never even consummated). There was no tentativeness to his music, though—at his most unadorned, his songs echoed of remarkable assurance. It was the underlying (or overt) melancholy coursing through his work that was most touching and profound. His prestige wouldn’t be felt for decades—he remained virtually unknown beyond the confines of critics and folk obsessives all through the 70s and early-80s. But then covers, soundtrack appearances, a seemingly endless stream of compilations, and advertisement music slowly restored him as a prominent influence on pop music.

I never thought I’d ever be so grateful for a Volkswagen ad, but sure enough…

River Man
Way to Blue
One of These Things First
Northern Sky
Pink Moon
Place to Be

Also endorsed: Joni Mitchell, Tim Buckley, Belle & Sebastian

kraftwerk1Any act to come around after the mid-70s with cyclical grooves and repeating motifs owes at least a small debt to Kraftwerk. Latter-era disco copied them, art rock loved them, hip hop sampled them, dance pop echoed them, and every type of electronic music of the last twenty years, be it synth pop, house, IDM, electro or whatever, lovingly flat-out ripped them off.

With sequencers, synthesizers and keyboards reigning supreme and clinical deadpan vocals repeating simple phrases (during the few stretches where vocals are even employed at all), it was probably easy to initially dismiss these compositions as distant, dehumanized and mechanical. But even though the clicking, repeating rhythms feel symbolic of the monotonous whir of machinery, trains, cars, etc., they’re also indicative of the steady drumbeat the heart produces. Tucked inside the mechanisms are soft gradients, robotic funk, swooping maneuvers, and absorbing textures. I would even argue they glow with warmth, kraftwerk2though that might be debatable; it’s impossible to argue, however, that they’re not utterly hypnotic.

But it’s still hard to talk about Kraftwerk without detailing their two prime attributes: 1) Their staggering influence on modern pop music labels them as “influence” way before being a legitimate “band,” and 2) whether rhythmically/lyrically reflecting trains, bicycles, computers, cars, or whatever, they sound like robots, not people—never clearer than on “The Robots” when Ralf Hütter announces, “We are the robots.” The futurist slant of their recordings and synthetic arrangements keeps them still sounding way ahead of the curve, like music vacuumed through a wormhole from Mars colonies in the year 2107 that somehow got picked up by one of our “primitive” transistors. So thank you, German-Mars men of the twenty-second century, for making the last thirty years a lot more tolerable.

Europe Endless
Trans-Europe Express
The Robots
The Model
Pocket Calculator
Musique Non Stop

Also endorsed: Neu!, Tangerine Dream, Gary Numan

She has one of the most celebrated voices in pop music history, earning her the deserved nickname, Queen of Soul. It was actually a title given to her at a show in 1965, before she was a superstar (she’d scraped the bottom of the Top 40 just once). One doesn’t need to be a pop sensation to be recognized as a supreme talent, though, and in 1967 after signing with Atlantic, arethafranklin1the foresight caught up with reality, and she started cranking out Billboard smashes and became a celebrity force in both the feminist and Civil Rights movements.

It’s hard for me to get over the fact that she essentially is just the voice, though. She wrote some of her own tunes, but most were either penned for her or “became” hers because she was a cover artist extraordinaire—though to be honest, with her signature tune, “Respect,” I actually prefer Otis Redding’s original (maybe because of less ubiquity). And if I only considered including someone like Frank Sinatra in this series for about four seconds before moving on, why the love for Aretha?

For one, most of the soul/R&B stars around the time of her breakthrough were singing other people’s material. For another, she owned—owned—nearly every song she performed during her peak years. Also, raw talent doesn’t dictate how someone performs, and her combination of restraint and fearlessness informs how she’ll attack or nurture those words. “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” is a perfect example: a plaintive ache and smolder while laying down the arethafranklin2details, bursting to ardent relief when the chorus bursts in. Most singers’ instincts would accentuate the climax to go even further over the top, ripping out the octave-hopping melismas while drawing out “woman” to nine or ten syllables. But Aretha simmers back down like a divine sigh of satisfaction, all the while insisting on a sense of control to make sure no man thinks he could overcome her proud, fierce identity.

Or maybe it’s because in the endless parade of pop divas to come and go, from true talents like Diana and Whitney to headaches like Mariah and J. Lo, she’s the only one that I would completely forgive for displaying the worst tendencies of that ilk (namely, the temptation to be a narcissistic, self-absorbed, demanding, high-maintenance bitch) just to hear her belt out the classics.


I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)
(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman
Chain of Fools
I Say a Little Prayer
Rock Steady
Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)

Also endorsed: Tina Turner, Patti LaBelle, Martha & the Vandellas

smiths1You know that mopey, sad-sack rock you got sick to death of over the last ten or fifteen years? Well, most of it can be blamed on the Smiths. The moody, non-“Wall of Sound Beatles” Britpop stuff? Way to go, Smiths. The bookish bedroom misery that characterized indie pop? Smiths, Smiths, Smiths. So what made these guys, Britain’s college rock answer to R.E.M and 10,000 Maniacs, so much more special than all the good, bad and ugly they wrought? By and large, it’s Morrissey and Johnny Marr (with apologies to Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce, a solid rhythm section once again overshadowed by the stars).

Oddly enough, I didn’t even much care for Morrissey years ago. I found his whine to be a bit oppressive over the long haul of an entire album. I kinda wanted to tell the guy to lighten up. But as it usually is, I hear the singer before I actually listen to him, and the guy’s kinda hysterical. In fact, he’s actually less appealing speaking from the heart than when he’s being tart, wry or downright snarky in his pithy observations and jaunty statements. “Sweetness, sweetness, I was only joking when I said I'd like to smash every tooth in your head,” he sings on “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” which summed up his response to most of his controversies. “I was looking for a job, and then I found a job, and heaven knows I'm miserable now,” from “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” meanwhile, sums up both his pungent attributes in small-time commentary and the group’s gift at making miserablism appealing.

smiths2But Morrissey was just half of the songwriting pair, and Johnny Marr brought flexibility and grounding to their songs. His jangle guitar technique was heavily indebted to the sound of the Byrds and Crazy Horse-era Neil Young, but there was muscle behind several of his figures that aided in propelling Morrissey’s vocals from the moody din. The contentious relationship between he and Morrissey eventually ended them, and rare among cult and commercial faves of the time, have never reconvened and seem as unlikely to get back together as the Police (…oh, wait).

Their greatest legacy is returning the UK clubs back to the realm of guitar and live beat rock after years spent mired in electronics and dance pop, and their influence on future pop and alternative music on both sides of the pond is incalculable. NME declared the Smiths to be the most important rock band of all time. Hyperbole, to be sure (and more than a little ludicrous), but if they were just talking about British alternative rock of the 80s, they’d have been spot on.

Hand in Glove
This Charming Man
Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now
How Soon Is Now?
The Queen Is Dead (Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty)
I Know It’s Over
There Is a Light That Never Goes Out
Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me

Also endorsed: Morrissey (solo), the Stone Roses, the Cranberries

There were more authentic swamp rockers out there, but none were as capable of arresting nationwide attention as a little band from way, way out of the bayou (El Cerrito, CA, near Oakland, to be exact) called Creedence Clearwater Revival. Their fusion of Delta blues, choogle, roots, ccr1rockabilly, psychedelia, country, R&B and rock provided some of the most interesting (and unconventional) pop music of the late-60s/early-70s.

Rolling and stumbling on viscous, jerking blues thrusts and gritty, sun-baked shuffles, their rhythm section powers the groove, but never in a showy fashion—at first glance, it’s even easy to think they simply modified the same beat over and over again. John Fogerty’s distinctive gravelly wallop had an effective froggy quality that worked with the raw, backwoods style; when he yelped, the strangle gave it an extra dose of fury and passion, evinced well on tunes like “Fortunate Son” and “Hey Tonight.” His songwriting was key to the band’s success—with pscyh-pop and acid rock all the rage, their return to basics with a beefy sound and tough edge gave them a formidable advantage over so-called peers. The speed with which he wrote those songs was also critical: tension between band members, especially John and brother Tom, would strain them to the point where longevity simply wasn’t in the cards. But they managed ccr2three full-lengths and four singles that hit between #2 and #3 on the charts (and a B-side that reached #14) in 1969 alone.

In addition to a sound that unexpectedly translated to chart success, they were also one of the scariest bands around at the time. Even though they were peaking right around the same time that heavy metal forerunners like Zeppelin and Sabbath were first breaking onto the scene, those two gravitated towards the larger than life, while Creedence explored more reasonable and terrestrial fears, the kind that gnaws on you when you see a redneck plucking on a banjo after watching Deliverance. The combination of terror, paranoia, dread and confusion that fueled full-lengths like Green River and Willy and the Poor Boys remains palpable to this day. And that low, dark bass thump of the main riff on their cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” is the number one reason why I actually prefer their take over Marvin Gaye’s.

And, of course, CCR is the musical signature of the Dude. I’m sure he would abide.

Susie Q
Proud Mary
Bad Moon Rising
Green River
Fortunate Son
Up Around the Bend
I Heard It Through the Grapevine
Have You Ever Seen the Rain?

Also endorsed: the Allman Brothers Band, Buffalo Springfield, the Guess Who

Long before I started drawing the lines in dividing the good from the bad of the seemingly endless parade of singer/songwriters in the 70s, I listened to Warren Zevon. And not just his amusing hit “Werewolves of London,” which can be as ubiquitous as “Monster Mash” on the radio come warrenzevon1Halloween time, though that was, of course, the first song of his I knew. But just scanning the tracklist of his third album (and masterpiece) Excitable Boy provides a teaser that strange stuff is afoot—“Lawyers, Guns and Money,” “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” “Werewolves,” etc. Listening to Boy ultimately proved fortuitous for all the obvious reasons, none more so than the revelations of his acerbic, sardonic wit and his varied ambitions: he could make you feel kinda blue one moment and then make you wickedly laugh out loud the next.

Many of his tunes are full-bodied and vigorous, a departure from the quintessential sensi-soft folk rock that typified Dylan n’ Mitchell wannabes of the time. Easier entryways, then, to absorb the wild nuances and tongue-in-cheek bravado. He so rarely sounds curmudgeonly bitter, and when going gentle not much of a wimp even by contrast. It’s no shock that he was a favorite of David Letterman and made numerous appearances on his program—both brought a dangerous edge lacking in their respective communities when safe sold better.

warrenzevon2As good as some of his ballads are—especially on The Wind, for reasons relating both to his mindset when faced with mortality and the listener’s awareness of it—he’ll always be Los Angeles’ dark prince of rock to me. If Hunter S. Thompson was a musician with more clarity and a few detox sessions in the bank, he’d probably sound like Zevon at his least didactic. But the fact there seem to be few moral lessons at all in his music is one of his most appealing attributes; it’s the wild man waving a pistol who could be the professor but instead just tells the best stories you’ll hear that evening. His mordant philosophies aren’t made comatose by highway-to-hell outlooks, though—he’s smart, savage, satiric, and whether spinning out of control or picking up the pieces, ruthlessly individualistic and honest.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead
Excitable Boy
Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner
Lawyers, Guns and Money
Ain’t That Pretty at All
Boom Boom Mancini
I Was in the House When the House Burned Down
Keep Me in Your Heart

Also endorsed: Jackson Browne, Loudon Wainwright III, the James Gang

vanmorrison1Forever swathed in mysticism and sorcery, Van Morrison is really tough to nail down, and few ought to bother. It’s not really his fault that it seems today to be all downhill from Astral Weeks because it would have been all downhill from there even if Mozart, Igor Stravinsky or Brian Wilson had created it—it’s that extremely rare record that defies classification, criticism or understanding, especially for one that attained those attributes without being polarizing or anti-pop. Most artists attempt a fusion of varied elements, but how many invent an admirable new language that is then never replicated again? Only Van Morrison.

And if Astral Weeks was all he had in him and subsequently went into reclusive isolation, he’d still be considered a master. But he just kept releasing fascinating and bewitching records, whether acclaimed nearly universal like Moondance and Into the Music or divisive like Tupelo Honey and Veedon Fleece. What kept him consistent in those so-called receding years was his gift for melody, his recognized intrepidity, and his unique voice, which is unusually soulful for someone who doesn’t vanmorrison2have a “soul sound.” The literal, cursory confines of language do not limit him when he performs—his wails, hums, hiccups, whispers and grunts are as poetic as his alchemic lyrics.

For those who gauge music and singing and performance as the ultimate release of the mind, body and soul, Van Morrison is their embodiment. He simply can’t not be a musician, a double negative indicative of the complexity within that charges him. He was obsessed with music and would listen to his favorite records again and again, discovering ways to produce wide, vivid spectrums in small spaces. His two most immortal releases were done back-to-back: an irregular, insinuating one fueled by turmoil, pain and bleakness, the other surging with clear joie de vivre and highly accessible—and both were hardly “written” at all, merely existing as simple structures and bars to improvise around in the studio. Like the blues men he studied relentlessly, his songs are extensions of his whirlwind emotions, tinged with the aura of mystic spirituality that forever surrounds him.

Sweet Thing
Madame George
Tupelo Honey
Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile)
Bright Side of the Road
Have I Told You Lately

Also endorsed: Them, The Small Faces, Dexy’s Midnight Runners

jamesbrown1If my judgment had greater emphasis on live performance and influence, then James Brown would be striding, strutting and grunting comfortably in the Top 20 instead of just missing out on the upper half. When I think of a charismatic, larger-than-life performer, I almost always think of James Brown. And his nicknames were earned: Godfather of Soul, The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Mr. Dynamite, Minister of the New New Super Heavy Funk, Soul Brother Number One, Mr. Please Please, Sex Machine. Who else is as famous for a stage routine as Brown, namely his move where he acts like he’s too exhausted to continue and someone comes out and throws a cape over his shoulders and attempts to usher him offstage only for him to soon after shake it off and launch back into action for an encore?

All of Brown’s spontaneity and showmanship was calculated; not only did he know his audience, but he knew the jukebox/radio single era. The common charge that a lot of his heavy funk and rhythmic numbers sound recycled from earlier hits was a fair observation, but he wasn’t an album artist—his strongest full-lengths were The Payback, with its longform R&B jams and cycling grooves, and his legendary live album at The Apollo, an early R&B concert record and an astonishing chart success. Even as a hitmaker, he thrived on getting shuffled in between other material, an explosion of new funk energy after some smoldering torch song or slow ballad. But as a performer—nay, an jamesbrown2entertainer—his epic live shows left the audience as fatigued as he must have been. Brown actually could sing, and some of the slower, smoother songs in his repertoire emphasized this, but he’s known for that full-bodied yelp cut to explosive grunts, like he was just being squeezed relentlessly and resisting it all the way (at least he sounded ecstatic about it).

Today, long after the performances are left to archives and memories, his complete body of work doesn’t seem staggeringly more impressive than some of the other early R&B crossover artists and funk pioneers. He didn’t necessarily have a better run of hits than his peers. But his effect on future superstars is inarguable. Prince, Miles Davis, Sly Stone, George Clinton, Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Jackson 5…none of them would be the same today without Brown (some might not even exist). As for hip hop, what jungle groove and funk horn hooks would there be without him? It’s a legacy that will remain forever.

Night Train
Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag
I Got You (I Feel Good)
It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World
Cold Sweat
I Got the Feelin’
Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine
The Payback

Also endorsed: The Meters, Wilson Pickett, ESG

[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]



Matt Medlock


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