Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Artists (#45-41)


Continuing on with the countdown, today I reveal an underappreciated and too-little-known rock band, heavy metal titans, and more.

Of course, it’s going to upset some people for me to declare that three white Jewish guys who cut their teeth on punk rock are the best hip hop act ever. I’m sure that being white and suburban affected my decision, and it is true that my evaluation is affected by the fact that they were once beastieboys1one of the only hip hop musicians that I listened to, let alone respected (though the first cassette I ever owned was, big surprise, MC Hammer’s Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em, but come on, I was ten). And I had no desire to be introduced to ghetto life, gang violence and tacky, shallow hang-ups, so I found their pop culture references, tireless name drops, rapid fire non-sequitors, and playful but hard-hitting attack to be much more engaging than tales from the hood, celebrations of bling, and odes to gigantic asses. So now, after opening my mind a little and recognizing the diamonds in the rough, why do I still champion the Beastie Boys above the rest (it’s gotta be more than just a nostalgia kick)?

There are still some folks out there convinced that Beastie Boys’ debut album for Def Jam, Licensed to Ill, isn’t a legitimate hip hop album; that because it came from a bunch of bratty white boys sampling Led Zep and hollering, “Fight for your right to party!”  it was some cash-grab novelty, a way to capitalize on this new “rap” craze and package it for white America. In actuality, it was just a dirty little secret in the rap community (and black community in general) that these guys had rhyming skills, an intriguing and aggressive sound, and the best beats and hooks in the game. It beastieboys2must have seemed unfair that they would “steal” black music and take it mainstream, much like Elvis Presley had done thirty years earlier. But also like Elvis, they did it reverently, and you can’t fault them for polishing the rough edges and making it more commercially appealing.

They knew what they were doing, too. They studied Afrika Bambaataa and the Cold Crush Brothers and brought their youthful enthusiasm and rock n’ roll background to the performance. Like Run-DMC had already helped pioneer, their fusion of heavy rock sound with hip hop’s cadence and manual street poetry created a visceral urgency that attacked the senses in exciting ways. Even when they were clearly clowning around, it was no joke—they were serious about it as an art form, and any and all accusations that they were poseurs appropriately came across as bitter envy. And they never tried to capitalize on genre trends. Once they laid their own path, they never wandered from it, and eventually sounded like no one else in the game.

When they suffered a backlash after the commercial explosion of that first LP, what could have been taken as conspiratorial hostility instead encouraged them to stick to their guns. They retreated from their New York home to the West Coast in the late-80s where they fell in with the Dust Brothers, who created a dense, bracing sample smorgasbord for their second album, Paul’s Boutique—initially met with indifference by both critics and consumers, it later went on to influence nearly every facet of modern rap production technique and is widely viewed as one of the greatest hip hop LPs ever released. They followed that with increasingly maverick records in the 90s, epic showstoppers rife with throwaways, instrumental gags, varied sounds, and increasingly innovative (and sometimes even mature) lyricism. In most rap artists’ hands, the bevy of side plots, beastieboys3interludes and experiments would be overkill, but the Beasties’ rich musical aesthetic made anything remotely tiresome (usually) interesting at the very least—and their skits were almost always funny, too. By the decade’s end, it was no longer a secret that the Beastie Boys were incredible—they were hip hop royalty in all sectors.

While my early infatuation with their music no doubt influenced my favoritism, I can also honestly admit that their boundless creativity, distinctive and unified vision, and high class of consistent output sealed the deal. They’re elder statesmen now, political activists, respected veterans, family men, eternal innovators, and their longevity can’t be sneezed at. Each of the three MCs—Michael “Mike D” Diamond, Adam “Ad-Rock” Horowitz, Adam “MCA” Yauch—have distinct personalities but function perfectly as a cohesive group. And their music videos were awesome enough to give anyone reason to occasionally pause on MTV when channel surfing. Simply put, they’re one of the coolest groups of all time, regardless of genre.

No Sleep Till Brooklyn
Paul Revere
Brass Monkey
Slow and Low
High Plains Drifter
Hey Ladies
Jimmy James
So Whatcha Want
Sure Shot
Bodhisattva Vow
Three MCs and One DJ
Body Movin’ (Fatboy Slim Remix)
Ch-Ch-Check It Out
Off the Grid

Also endorsed: Run-DMC, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Jungle Brothers

failure1What gall I must have to not only include Failure in this list, but to put them in the top half ahead of so many world famous stars…dare I say, institutions. Though they scored well with critics during their relatively brief run, this is, of course, a largely personal pick; most people don’t even remember them, if they ever knew them in the first place. But I’ve had to buy Fantastic Planet three times now from wear-and-tear overuse (okay, one of them was stolen, but it would’ve needed to be replaced soon enough anyway). They seemed on the verge of mainstream recognition when they called it quits in ’97, but for me, the question isn’t, “What if?” but rather, “Why, God, why?”

Yet another of the hundreds and thousands of 90s alternative rock bands who owe the Pixies for their very existence, they started out a solid little rock band, but lacking a unique sound. Their debut, Comfort, has no shortage of winners both small and large, but Steve Albini’s typically sparse, snare-heavy production didn’t give them an identity to separate them from the muddy grind of the pack. Since the band was guitar-heavy and more dynamic in melodies and harmonic, it didn’t really “sound” like Failure, which the band members admitted themselves. They self-produced their follow-up, Magnified—as an assured batch of cryptic post-grunge rockers, often very catchy, with stronger songwriting and a reliance on surging hooks failure2breaking through the dense guitar roar, fringed with experimental explorations through segue tracks and manipulated soundscapes.

But those advances seem tepid compared to the lengths they went for Fantastic Planet, an almost staggering progression into heavy (and eerily, heavenly) space rock, measured, varied, psychedelic and heavily textured with electronic effects, but not afraid to tear through snatches of hard rock and well-disguised gut-punch pop to keep things interesting (and hugely infectious). The music and (especially) lyrics feel encouraged by drug addiction, grounded by that stark reality against its otherwise otherworldly melodies and psychedelic flourishes—starlight canopies in a (pill)-induced dream—but without ever bogging down in bleak depression or misery.  

That ambition as much as their finely-tuned craftsmanship, attention to production and technique, and an ear for earworms, is what makes them so special in my mind (and what made their collapse so disheartening). I was forgiving of most of the early-run grunge-esque bands that started springing up the moment Nirvana started getting big (and still think that the “elegant bachelors” of Stone Temple Pilots, especially, are heartlessly undervalued). But while there are certainly sonic similarities—especially on those first two records—and a lot of the riffs carry some of the trademarks, the songwriters are as much meticulous technicians as instrumentalists (hardly characteristic of the Seatle-ites) and I can’t imagine them ever sporting flannel.

failure3There may be defensive psychology bottled up in my brain; I may champion Failure too much. Not just because they’ve been criminally overlooked, but in defense of the entire “post-grunge” ideology, as if bad songwriting wasn’t the cause of its travesties, but rather derivative guitar chords and tuning. Which would somehow vindicate Planet’s final third from blame, an atmospheric stretch from “The Nurse Who Loved Me” through “Daylight” that never looks back—and contains the group’s only faint and fleeting whiff of commercial success in the single “Stuck on You.” Or that would excuse Greg Edwards’ bending basslines for being less “clumsily imitative” of Kurt Cobain’s songs. And maybe Edwards and Ken Andrews can then get a pass as songwriters because their cryptic ingredients may reference the usual checklists, but they’re framed through the writing styles of the decidedly un-grunge Jason Pierce and Martin Gore. And then the hooks get you, and you snicker at the idea of stuff this gloomy sounding so hideously anthemic, and picture a whole crowd of shoegaze-types lifting their chins long enough to scream out, “Bernie’s got the way to feel good times, she lives on the way to the park!” And Ken Andrews’ delicate melodies, droning chords and spaced-out effects veered from the sludge model. And you can’t get “Moth” and the bridge-to-chorus run of “Empty Friend” out of your head if your life depended on it. And you catch your breath when discovering just how gorgeous a melody is tucked away inside “Saturday Savior.” And that is the backward route to the epiphany in figuring out what I know is really there.

Screen Man
Empty Friend
Saturday Savior
Dirty Blue Balloons
Another Space Song
The Nurse Who Loved Me
Stuck on You
Enjoy the Silence

Also endorsed: Autolux, On, Hum

The movement from instinct to calculation is quite profound
You've listened and been more than a tape recorder
Talent carries its own weight;
The intellect it weds determines greatness
Our age is such that we must fight off fat
One hopes the mind outlasts the skin
--Lou Reed (from “Playing Music Is Not Like Athletics”)

loureed1Lou Reed is one of those musicians where you think you can generally pinpoint his style and estimate what can be expected each time, but you never get it right. You know his writing obsessions—drug use, street culture, seedy night life, transvestites & homosexuals & prostitutes, oh my!, and just NYC and its underbelly in general. And from his time spent with the Velvet Underground, you know about his captivations with dissonance, drone, detachment, and birthing art rock. Yet every time you flip on a new Lou Reed record, it’s something different, something more and less, and something that you need to hear again, whether you loved it, hated it, or were just left scratching the noggin.

There is an exception to that: I never felt a desire to give Metal Machine Music another run through (actually, I never even finished it). But that converts into a positive—it proves that Reed never shied from an opportunity to do something risky, if not outright foolhardy, just for the impulse (he’s even said himself of Metal: “No one is supposed to be able to do a thing like that and survive”). Some of those risks include a despairing song cycle involving loureed2addiction, abuse, prostitution and suicide (Berlin), purely meditational music (Hudson River Wind Meditations), the mostly empty rock and saturated arrangements of Sally Can’t Dance, an Edgar Allen Poe-framed concept album (The Raven), and the bloodless drum machines of Mistrial.

Lou Reed being safe, meanwhile, is usually bland, not befitting the man behind some of NYC’s best rock observations, imagery, and difficult aesthetic depreciation. The more upbeat and straightforward approach of New Sensations, for example, yielded a few fine tunes (including one of his best from the 80s, “I Love You, Suzanne”) but mostly slight pop-friendly tunes ill-fitting in his canon. But there was a difference between being “safe” and being “polished,” which referred to much of his greatest solo work (and at that, “polished” was a comparative description that referred to his glam side and his back-to-basics side). These include his (shockingly) best and most popular effort, Transformer, the Velvet-een New York, and an amalgam of both in The Blue Mask.

Reed is celebrated for his presence at the forefront of the rock avant-garde, gritty and honest and unafraid to explore (and even celebrate) parts of the common life that most would prefer to leave loureed3alone. As David Bowie said, “He supplied us with the street and the landscape, and we peopled it.” There are those in his greatly respected echelon who are intellectuals, those who are composers, and those who are poets—Reed clearly belongs in the latter category. His words have a direct approach of vivid honesty, unfussy but florid (if broken pavement, rainslick alleys, and dim red lights under twilight could ever be described as vegetation), and bold for not being loaded with message and meaning. Whatever strange tendencies his music could shape—befitting a major influence on punk, art rock, noise rock, alternative, and numerous other detours—it’s the images in his words, a cacophonous blend of misery, reality, beauty and violence, that will live forever.

Perfect Day
Walk on the Wild Side
Satellite of Love
Lady Day
Kill Your Sons
Coney Island Baby
Street Hassle (Waltzing Matilda section)
Stupid Man
Waves of Fear
I Love You, Suzanne
Dirty Blvd.
Busload of Faith
This Magic Moment
Sex with Your Parents (Motherf-cker) Part II

Also endorsed: John Cale, New York Dolls, Suzanne Vega

At the end of the 60s, hippie idealism had converted into mellow-hysteria, with flower children running rampant, their love fests turning heads and stomachs, and their constancy of peace, love and harmony driving cynics (and realists) out of their mind. So these four guys from the industrial blacksabbath1center of Birmingham come along with a solution: they were gonna scare the bejeezus out of all of ‘em. Enter Black Sabbath, with their grim, grimy and grinding blues-based heavy metal, singing songs not just about death, drugs and war, but also about witchcraft, pagan rituals, occult mythology, and the dark lord Satan himself. Needless to say, it did the trick. Dreary drum circles were out, wicked drum solos were in, and evil reigned supreme.

Of course, Sabbath is best known today as being the launching pad for that irascible Prince of Darkness, Ozzy Osbourne, but those early years were not dominated by that voice of the damned—he wasn’t the star of the show even for those who latched on immediately to this dark, crushing new sound. Sabbath was driven by the instruments, creating ugly, viscous grooves and sludgy, titanic guitar riffs, sinking into shadows and nightmare without needing the encouragement of the intimidating words and Ozzy’s uniquely potent wail. In some ways, he was actually their weakest link during the group’s heyday, evinced best by his “singing” on their ill-advised stab at a ballad, “Changes.”

But it didn’t matter that Osbourne was still in the prototype phase, because the other musicians were at the top of their game immediately. Even while sorting through their post-Cream heavy English blues addictions on that self-titled debut of theirs, they still managed really spooky blacksabbath2atmosphere on the title track, references to both H.P. Lovecraft and the wizard Gandalf, and the killer riff/rhythm combo of “N.I.B.” With their touches of psychedelia and song suites, they even seemed to be almost parodying the posh, florid pop they were rebelling against; instead of bringing in ethereal harmonies and whirling, major key crescendos, though, they wallowed in the muck, sounding like, well, four dark, dirty dudes from an industrial town infatuated with the arcane and black magic.

After that first strike, they really left their mark with their second album later that same year: Paranoid, a near-masterpiece that rivals (and in many other fans’ estimations, exceeds) the original. The necessary fondness for pop songwriting was certainly in greater amounts, especially on the frantic fury of the title tune and the clean verse/chorus structure of “Iron Man” (before the face-melting climactic riff blows your speakers to bits). Even the epic “War Pigs,” another classic rock radio favorite, became a major influence on the development of hard rock. And follow-up Master of Reality further enhanced their reputation as the definitive sludge metal band, with Tony Iommi’s murky riffs riding one of the most bludgeoning but menacingly expressive rhythm sections in all of rock (Bill Ward and Geezer Butler never get the acclaim they deserve).

blacksabbath3After those first three superlative records, and the good (sometimes great) halves of No. 4, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and Sabotage, the band had trouble finding inspiration, drinking and drug use began taking a major toll, and a couple of flat efforts seemed ready to defeat them before they reached the next decade. When Ozzy went solo, it seemed like it would be over, but Rainbow’s Ronny James Dio came aboard and breathed brief but recognizable life back into the old workhorse (especially on the Heaven and Hell title track). After changing lineups and a series of unspectacular records in the 80s and 90s, they’ve now become the heavy metal circuit dinosaurs, reconvening for the occasional reunion of the classic quartet to spread evil and darkness to their faithful flock. But for their effect on hard rock and metal both old and more modern, as well as their long list of never-stale classic behemoths, Sabbath deserves the vast majority of the praise heaped upon them by genre diehards and beyond.

Black Sabbath
The Wizard
War Pigs
Iron Man
Electric Funeral
Sweet Leaf
Sabbath Bloody Sabbath

Also endorsed: Ozzy Osbourne (solo), Iron Maiden, Thin Lizzy

“I sing about life.”
“Music, not sex, got me aroused.”
“If you cannot find peace within yourself, you will never find it anywhere else.”
“War is not the answer because only love can conquer hate.”
“Great artists suffer for the people.”

marvingaye1If Marvin Gaye was just a man, he probably would have had a beautiful but troubled soul the world would have never known. But Marvin Gaye was Marvin Gaye—the Prince of Soul, a sex symbol and genius performer, a visionary and icon, blessed with one of the great voices in all of pop music.

His career began in earnest as a part of the Moonglows and as a drummer for the Miracles, where he developed a close friendship with Smokey Robinson. As a solo performer early in his career, he wanted to sing on smooth jazz and standards, but Motown relegated him to their R&B bread and butter. Though he had numerous solo hits during the 60s, including “You’re a Wonderful One,” “Baby Don’t You Do It,” and his signature number “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” he was perhaps even more famous as a duet performer during the time, recording international hits with Kim Weston, Mary Wells and, most famously, Tami Terrell (he also recorded with Diana Ross, but found it difficult to share a platform with a “prima donna”).

marvingaye2His recording career was forever altered after singing partner Terrell collapsed into Gaye’s arms during a performance in late-1967. Diagnosed with a brain tumor, she passed away two-and-a-half years later and Gaye vowed never to sing another duet—so depressed by her illness, he even attempted suicide. Instead of more duets and soul seductions, he turned his attention to socio-political turbulence and anti-war protests with his seminal LP What’s Going On. Motown chief Berry Gordy tried to prevent the titular lead single from being released for fear of ruining the image of his sex symbol performer; even after the single sold in excess of two million copies, he tried to prevent the release of the album as well. Gaye was vindicated for his pursuits when the LP was a huge seller as well, and nearly universally praised by critics.

Whether there was any regret that Gaye never returned to focus on those maturing themes remains unknown, but after What’s Going On and a blaxploitation film soundtrack—not remotely on the same level as Super Fly or Shaft—Gaye returned to sensual soul work with Let’s Get It On and its famous “baby-making music” title track. For all of his different diversions, though, he never lacked that soul, that smolder, that carnality. He invariably helped create the existence (and the cliché) of the Quiet Storm musical style and radio programming. And even if he hadn’t have been a strikingly handsome man, he could still make any woman on the planet melt.

It never seems to be that easy, though. His career hit a rough patch later in the decade when drug addiction and a bitter court battle during divorce proceedings with wife (and daughter of Berry marvingaye3Gordy) Anna devastated his personal and professional lives. Trouble with the IRS and a divorce from his second wife a couple years later stalled his career even further. Gaye made a comeback in the early-80s with the success of Midnight Love and its chart smash “Sexual Healing” (and subsequently, his first actual wins at the Grammy awards). But after the album tour, Gaye’s mental and physical condition rapidly deteriorated and he went to live with his parents. Constant and heated fighting with his father eventually led to his 1984 murder on the day before his forty-fifth birthday. It was a theft as brutal as any other musician’s early departure, and shocked the world in its suddenness and violence. But some voices can never be muted, and the world will always listen to Marvin Gaye sing.

You’re a Wonderful One
Once Upon a Time [with Mary Wells]
Baby Don’t You Do It
How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)
Ain’t That Peculiar
It Takes Two [with Kim Weston]
Ain’t No Mountain High Enough [with Tami Terrell]
Your Precious Love [with Tami Terrell]
Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing [with Tami Terrell]
I Heard It Through the Grapevine
That’s the Way Love Is
What’s Going On
What’s Happening Brother
Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)
Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)
Trouble Man
Let’s Get It On
I Want You
Got to Give It Up (single edit)

Also endorsed: Tami Terrell, the Spinners, Mary Wells

[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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