Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Artists (#50-46)


Welcome to the halfway point in Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Artists. Today, we’re gonna slow things down and stretch a bit. For numbers 50 through 21, I will be presenting them in clusters of five instead of ten. So today, it’s #50-46. Read on for a little American indie, a little Britpop, and more.

Also, as we get closer to the top and uncover finer and finer artists, it’s time to ditch those clunky 8-Track mixes and get ourselves some real audio cassettes, capable of holding a full 60 minutes and change. Did someone say, “Road trip!”?

Now, on with the countdown.

50 [Beavis and Butthead watching the video for Pavement’s “Rattled by the Rush”]
Butthead: “They need to try harder.”
Beavis: “Yeah, yeah, it’s like, it’s like they’re not even trying. [sarcastically imitates Stephen Malkmus’ baggy vocals] C’mon, c’mon, I want you to start over again, and this time, try!”

pavement1Tricking people into thinking they weren’t really “trying” is, of course, one of Pavement’s finest ruses. It’s not a lack of effort on their part, nor is it a conscious decision to become aesthetes, which they did by accidentally becoming the quintessential indie rock band of the 90s. And this is usually where someone would launch into a celebration of Pavement as an identity, an accidental purpose, the huge “whatever” of the times. Let’s tiptoe through that minefield and just get to what made them remarkable as actual, interested musicians.

Beginning in Stockton, CA at the end of the 1980s, they went through the usual growing pains of becoming good musicians and crafty songwriters, refreshing the Swell Maps and the Fall before getting around to a more credible facsimile of R.E.M., the Replacements and Pixies. Those early EPs, particularly Slay Tracks (1933-1969) and Demolition Plot J-7 are mostly bookmarks today, a little too lo-fi even for lo-fi and “good starts” where people prefer “good jobs.” But by the arrival of their debut LP with Matador, Slanted and Enchanted, they’d worked through a lot of those issues, pavement2even though Gary Young was still the “official” drummer, and had difficulty keeping the beat and not falling off his drum stool while drunk during shows. The former hippie’s tendency to hand out mashed potatoes and cabbage to concertgoers before the start of shows is one of the more amusing stories of a band around which lots of amusing stories revolve.

Gary Young wouldn’t last much longer, and that dirty little secret of Slanted became more apparent with their second full-length, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain—the genesis of a lazy, slacker ethos that would dog their descriptions forever after was just as lazy and slacker a prop, whether intended as endearment or dismissal. Pavement was attempting to be revolutionary the same way as Nirvana; meaning they weren’t trying it at all. Nor is it all the way on the other side where they mumbled and fuzzed their way into an idiom that seemed born to resent them—hip kids too cool for the radio, and were probably too hip for themselves (I wonder what got them out of bed in the morning—an “ironic” passion for smarmy put-downs?).

Reinvest now in the twin guitar lines of childhood friends Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg (aka Spiral Stairs), which weren’t loose and straggling but rather inverted and elegant. Even at their most well-metered and circuitous, the beats never “improved” on the slapdash and disinterested toll as provided by Young, but indie rock of the time (and, really, all-time) is always pavement3indebted first to the “noble axe” after being rendered ignoble and un-axe-like. Malkmus’ lyrics seemed wayward, random, but were simply fractured and rangy—detailed but bemused observations, oddly-shaped studies, smart ass remarks, broken poetry that doesn’t think its brilliant, isn’t actually brilliant, but is confused as brilliant, so it kinda is brilliant.

Indie rock at the decade’s end and well into the new millennium mostly worked tirelessly to escape Pavement-itis, being more fashionable, earnest, meticulous. That worked well, in no small part because of the fact that it was an antidote to Pavement. But distance and perspective is refreshing today so that I can see more clearly that it wasn’t because Pavement ruined it for us—it’s because everyone trying to be the next Pavement was on the precipice of ruining it for us. Damn slackers. Try harder already.

Summer Babe (Winter Version)
Trigger Cut
In the Mouth a Desert
Fame Throwa
Silence Kid
Cut Your Hair
Range Life
Fillmore Jive
Rattled by the Rush
Grave Architecture
Shady Lane
Wanna Mess You Around
Date with Ikea
Spit on a Stranger

Also endorsed: Guided by Voices, Archers of Loaf, Nada Surf

pjharvey2When Polly Jean Harvey emerged during the early-90s, the most common (and most accurate) way the writers and listeners described her was “raw.” She was bold and blustery, fearless and emotionally bare, not afraid to seem damaged, not afraid to seem dysfunctional, almost chilling to witness in her tattered, unbridled defiance. But it was a time when plenty of female musicians were making audacious statements, from Tori Amos and Alanis Morrissette to Liz Phair and Björk—a lot of them couldn’t convert those early impacts into consistent careers. If Harvey had proven to be a one-trick pony, it would’ve been an incredible trick, but lacking the dimension to make her an immortal. But over almost twenty years now, she’s proven to be multi-talented, comfortably human, and a force to be reckoned with on all fronts (in other words, the whole package).

Her early albums Dry and Rid of Me were manifestations of uncensored, confessional willpower, not overtly feminist (or even entirely feminine), and confronting gender roles at large in society only elusively, sticking mostly to the intimate, personal whims, thoughts, desires and fears of Harvey herself. She certainly confronted my own hormonal directives when she’d coo and tease one minute and then lash out for getting locked in metaphorical cages and being treated as a plaything for boys. Extroverted and blunt, she was equally adept at licking her wounds as begging you to lick pjharvey1her, ahem, but so it goes. And Freud would have had a field day with her on songs like “50-ft. Queenie” and 1995’s “Long Snake Moan”—she didn’t simply confront the phallic obsession, but she stridently confessed a desire to have one of her own.

Since she brazenly dashes conventions and definitions, we all should have realized how futile it was to try to label her by these exasperated, insubordinate terms. After those early efforts came tonal gradients, like the furrowing but varied, Flood-co-produced To Bring You My Love, which featured a lot of the same helter skelter intensity (including the aforementioned “Moan”) but was also bluesy, brutally clever, and highly theatrical. Then came an even bigger misdirection: the somewhat low-key but moody and murky affair Is This Desire?, which brought heavy use of strings and electronics into her oeuvre (including touches of trip hop). And after that, she began to exude more optimism and showed increased comfort in her own skin with the frequently upbeat, polished and hook-loaded Stories from the City Stories from the Sea, displaying whole new chameleonic facades (or personalities trapped in her cluttered brain). With Uh Huh Her, greater amounts of catharsis and tenderness, and later she dropped that phallic guitar of hers altogether for her most subdued and austere effort to date, White Chalk.

Being a fascinating character study doesn’t necessarily translate into being an admirable musician. But there’s no evidence suggesting it’s simply a calculated performance, and her musical craft is unmistakable. The tempestuous, red-throated vocal efforts during her early years had such feral intensity that when he she actually sang, I was left a little dumbfounded. Listen to the high, pjharvey3drawn-out notes she reaches on “We Float” and follow that up with the husky, bluesy snarl of “Meet Ze Monsta”; not only does she exhibit range, but each form vindicates the emotions compelling those words out. As for the songs, if the pop hooks aren’t abundant (or easily noticeable), there’s dark disquiet and serene beauty in the moody ballads and a primal urgency and torn fury in the shattered rockers.

As easy and convenient as it has always been to set musicians into niches, the habit has always been tougher on the ladies. “Oh, it’s that pissed-off, man-hating chick,” or, “That poor lovesick porcelain doll,” or, “She is woman, hear her roar,” or “Her songs suck but she’s sure got a nice set of lungs on her, if you know what I mean.” But Harvey commits to no predominantly male-invented role. She hardly even belongs to a genre at all, preferring to roam restless wherever she likes. With or without that wanderlust, though, she’s a sharp, inventive, dynamic, intrepid songwriter who rarely fails to captivate.

Oh My Lover
Rid of Me
50ft Queenie
C’mon Billy
Long Snake Moan
Down by the Water
Heela [with John Parish]
The Sky Lit Up
A Perfect Day Elise
Beautiful Feeling
The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore
This Is Love
Pocket Knife
The Slow Drug
When Under Ether

Also endorsed: Patti Smith, Throwing Muses, Made out of Babies

American indie may have sprung from a variety of sources, but all “college rock” came from R.E.M. The well-timed but seemingly slipshod jangle of Peter Buck’s Rickenbacker, Mike Mills’ pliable, unfussy bass, Bill Berry’s muted drum splashes, Michael Stipe’s faux-insouciant mutter and callow rem2whine—it’s been the blueprint for low end of the dial programming ever since. Which makes it all the more painful, then, that the soundtrack of my college experience (not provided by my own records) was a seemingly endless barrage of frat rock, vulgar party rap, cheerless bubblegum, grating R&B, and jam bands. I felt like I got cheated out of an important cultural step in personal exploration and maturation when it mattered most.

Exploration and maturation played an important part in R.E.M.’s development as well. Sure, their early fans probably would have been content for the band to keep cranking out variations on “Radio Free Europe” and “Harborcoat” again and again (especially if they were remotely as good as those classics), but their early appeal was as widely based on their system “soft” shock as it was on the actual strengths of their songwriting and performance—an antidote to the bloating synth-pop and new wave schemes. So if they were still doing jangle, mumble and obscuro into the 90s and beyond, it probably would have just been tiresome.

rem1Instead they offered variations along the way and began changing their outlook (eventually to the point where each new album featured its own aesthetic, however messy or misguided it sometimes was). With the release of Document and its two hits, “The One I Love” and “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” the small-time band began getting nationwide mainstream attention, and they scored what was then considered a most seismic scenario—crossover from indie label IRS to major label Warner Bros. with an impressive $10 million contract. But like Sonic Youth would do for DGC a few years later, the change did not greatly affect their writing or sound (accusations of crisper production and more amenable pop hooks were unfounded; they’d been drifting in that direction for several years when they were still with IRS). By the early-90s, though, with the release of huge hits like “Losing My Religion” and “Everybody Hurts,” they were more famous and respected than almost anyone else at the time that had been nurtured their entire careers by the budgets and PR of major labels.

Through it all, they never kowtowed to fashion—their ascension to stardom nearly coincided with the explosion of grunge, but despite some of the glam rock excesses of Monster, no one ever confused them with members of the flannel brigade. And as fan and critical furor faded a bit as the 90s waned on into the 00s, instead of trying a “return to form” bid for some of that old glory, they stayed consistent on their own terms and kept doing what they wanted, even when it was reallyrem3peculiar (flirtations with drum machines after Bill Berry left, Peter Buck putting down his guitar at times for a synthesizer instead, collabo with KRS-One for “Radio Song,” etc.). They were bold enough for surprises both good (the revitalized, charging garage-esque rock of 2008’s Accelerate) and bad (how many truly great bands have ever recorded a more irritating song than “Shiny Happy People”?). But doing so kept them unpredictable and fresh throughout all the highs and lows, and have sacrificed nothing that was important to the people actually writing and playing the music.

The “college rock” (and all the scruffy, hazy idealism wrapped within) that R.E.M. led the charge in creating was founded on no guiding principle besides being true to self. Which probably explains why R.E.M. always sounds like R.E.M., even though quick glances at songs separated by as much time and style as “Walk Unafraid” and “Pilgrimage” are easily interpreted as worlds apart. It was no effort to do so, anyhow, for Athens, GA’s R.E.M. So as rock stars, fittingly most unconventional.

Radio Free Europe
Perfect Circle
So. Central Rain
Feeling Gravity’s Pull
Begin the Begin
It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
You Are the Everything
Losing My Religion
Man on the Moon
Bang and Blame
Walk Unafraid

Also endorsed: The dB’s, the Hold Steady, the Feelies

queen1If the music of previous list honoree the Decemberists resembled the theater, then Queen’s brazen glam rock opuses were full-blown Broadway. On stage and in the studio, they were all about the show, the spectacle, the gaudy majesty as well as the broad performance. Detractors like to say they were campy, even cheesy—you betcha. But before punk felt a need to rebel, who wasn’t in the 70s? In this case, I say to the mohawked kids covered in black leather and safety pins: “Lighten up!”

Queen took flamboyance to parodic levels, but the band remained very tongue-in-cheek the entire way. Even the songs that can barely withstand their grandiose sounds—such as the mega-synthesizer sound of “Radio Ga Ga” and the “ah-ahhhhs” of the Flash Gordon soundtrack cut “Flash”—are so lovably ridiculous that only a complete cynic would resist them (and still probably fail to not crack a smirk). Even the band members groan at the vulgar operatics and hideous fashion in the music video for “It’s a Hard Life” (drummer Roger Taylor says it’s the “worst music video ever”). But Queen was always a serious and dedicated band that created melodramatic, exaggerated music that was queen2cheery good fun—even their stinkers are usually too crazy or stupid not to enjoy on some level, perhaps one of ill repute.

It’s not easy to be the rhythm section of extravagant, complex rock music like this, with the endless melodic and signature shifts, so Taylor and John Deacon don’t get the proper amount of admiration beyond Queen’s army of the devoted. Brian May wasn’t the most technically impressive or influential of guitarists, but he had some spectacular leads, showy solos, elaborately multi-tracked studio creations, and eclectic dynamism in all phases. Although the band is known for their ornate and bombastic live productions, their overdub-heavy studio artistry can sometimes be overlooked.

And striding through it all in silk, spandex, and enough makeup to cover the guest list of an entire debutante ball is the incomparable Freddie Mercury—an “extrovert” on the stage yet a “completely different man” off, and “gay as a daffodil, my dear.” For vocal range alone, he’s hall of fame material; as capable of sounding like a tough guy gang warrior (“We Will Rock You”) as a thrillingly effete harmonist (“Killer Queen”). Matching that versatility was their music, wildly assorted and queen3equally capable of punk-ish hard rock and grandstanding heavy metal as fits of cabaret, vaudeville, symphonic hysteria, and boisterously over-the-top synth-rock. It’s rock n’ roll revised as a cavalcade of sizzling excess.

A little Queen does go a long way—no matter how lovable, ludicrous does have its limits. Which might explain why as great as some of their albums could be, including their magnum opus A Night at the Opera, the hammy prog conceptual Queen II, and the glossy patchwork of Jazz (even by Queen’s glossy patchwork standards), they’re always full of strange choices, silly tangents, and are sometimes just plain exhausting. But when spread out piecemeal, shuffled into classic rock radio playlists, or given the full audio-visual treatment with stage show theatrics and their garish music videos (even that “worst [one] ever”), you swear they’re one of the most “awesome” groups ever.

Father to Son
Seven Seas of Rhye
Stone Cold Crazy
Killer Queen
I’m in Love with My Car
You’re My Best Friend
Bohemian Rhapsody
Somebody to Love
We Will Rock You
We Are the Champions
Fight from the Inside
Bicycle Race
Don’t Stop Me Now
Another One Bites the Dust
Crazy Little Thing Called Love
Under Pressure [with David Bowie]
Radio Ga Ga

Also endorsed: Alice Cooper, Meat Loaf, Van Halen

Summarizing Britpop results in errors. There were numerous championed styles, most of which were shared by no other major name in the chain; all it really required was to be British, play pop music, and be derived at least a touch from guitar-based English pop from the Kinks through the blur1Smiths. The two biggest names to emerge were Oasis, with their Fab Four obsessions set in widescreen Spector-vision, and Blur, with their…well, nothing could accurately describe them; not one cop out, anyway. They touched on the small scale and the large, the harmonic and the dissonant, crisp acoustics and buzzing electronics, sentimentality and sarcasm, feathery ballads and gnarled hard rockers.

Sure, they began reasonably with “Popscene” and Modern Life Is Rubbish (and before that, the reasonable “baggy” Madchester facsimile Leisure), but after the diverse, robust Anglo-centric pop of Parklife, the aping of American indie rock on Blur, the genre jumbles in 13, and the textured electronics and creeping tempos of Think Tank, getting one’s bearing on the exact direction or influence proved futile. When viewed as a timeline, Damon Albarn’s jump from this to Gorillaz doesn’t even seem unusual in the slightest. Boundaries are boring anyhow.

Because they were so scattered as aesthetes, it was impossible to accurately pin down what Blur was up to. Damon Albarn’s obsession with Blur’s band image and his role as a pop star hit a peak during the mid-90s, but he’s also been vocal about his distaste for the celebrity culture. Blur was pitted as a blood rival of Oasis’ during The Battle of Britpop (in the ’95 UK press-driven competition, Blur scored the #1 hit with “Country House” and Oasis nabbed the #1 album with (What’s the Story) Morning Glory), yet beyond the usual “cheeky British-isms” and the specialty of blur3the Gallagher brothers at pissing off anyone and everyone, there was no recognizable hatred there. If anything, Pulp upset them more when their hit “Common People” seemed to target Blur’s apparent celebration of lower middle class lifestyle. And even though “Song 2” (which might as well just be subtitled as “(Woo-hoo) Song 2”) is widely regarded as the band’s big breakthrough in the US, their earlier single “Girls & Boys” charted considerably higher years earlier (and speaking of which, where the hell did “Girls & Boys” fit into “Britpop”?).

Not a lot makes sense with these lads, really. “Country House,” one of their mildest and least impressive singles, is their first chart-topper, while two years earlier, the brilliant pop gem “For Tomorrow” barely scraped into the Top 30. Amidst all of their records, no matter how cheerful their pop is or touching their ballads are, they throw in a few quirky monkey wrenches just to keep things unstable. They were “veddy” British, but they wanted to design an album cover featuring a photo of Buckingham Palace and name it Soft Porn. They publicly voiced their aversion to modern American rock music (especially grunge) but guitarist Graham Coxon convinced them to tribute the lo-fi rock of the States, and even made it their eponymous album. And though Albarn promised a “return to roots” style album with Think Tank, they produced the bizarre limited-edition single “Don’t Bomb When You Are the Bomb” and then released an LP with slow tempos, brooding textures, and heavy reliance on electronics, African rhythms, and Middle Eastern melodies.

blur2So what does make sense with Blur? What can be seen clearly? Well, they’re the only major Britpop band to have thrived in the years after the sub-genre’s collapse (don’t listen to Oasis’ delusions). They’re the Kinks-iest of the bunch, and most indebted to the Who’s mod rock, too. As an art-pop band, they’re easily one of the best of the last two decades. As a restless innovator, Albarn can’t be knocked (UK’s The Guardian even named him the “Multi-Tasker of the Decade” for the 2000s). As a manipulator of the post-punk model, post-Smiths rock, and Madchester’s influence, Coxon is a master guitar melodicist. As a conundrum, you can always just get away with five little words: “Well, that’s Blur for ‘ya.”

For Tomorrow
Colin Zeal
Girls & Boys
Tracy Jacks
This Is a Low
The Universal
Song 2
On Your Own
Coffee & TV
No Distance Left to Run
Brothers and Sisters

Also endorsed: Gorillaz, Pulp, Elastica

[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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