Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Artists (#40-36)


Five more on the way, including some fiery, passionate rockers, the "greatest male soul singer of all time," and more.

Let’s be honest: “The Boss” is one of the coolest music nicknames ever. Sure, there’s always the “King of” or “Godfather of” whatever, giving unofficial supremacy over a form or protoype of music, but it doesn’t help matters that about a dozen artists claim (or are named by others) to be the King of Soul and another dozen say they’re the Godfathers of Funk, and every cool cat says they’re brucespringsteen1an art rock godfather, and so on. But “The Boss” can’t be touched, and no one else in pop music would try and claim the title. Except maybe Berry Gordy. Or Suge Knight. Or Tommy Mottola. Okay, revision: no performer would try and claim the title. Except maybe Barbra Streisand. Or Frank Sinatra. Or…ah, forget it. Cool nickname. Just one guy. No one else. Movin’ on.

Bruce Springsteen got his rep among Blue Collar America by giving voice to the troubles that afflicted the working class right down to the poverty line. He sang about industrial workers and war veterans and social strife and personal suffering and escape and triumph and sweat and dirt and pride and defeat. He played with incredible passion, sang of intense desire. He was a storytelling poet like the great folkies of the early 60s, but was incensed with the fire, vigor and drama of a classic roots and rockabilly musician. Increasing his credibility was the path of his own career—a constant hard worker who had a slow start and fought for his fame, and once he became a star, he kept right on pushing, touring and recording relentlessly for decades.

brucespringsteen2He gives it his all every night, galloping around stage and off, jamming back-to-back with members of the E Street, eroding his guitar strings with furious strums, rallying the crowd to a fever pitch, drenched in sweat while wrenching out every pained or exultant holler, until he practically (or in a few cases, literally) collapses breathless. Unlike James Brown’s sly, self-aware “wink” (a showman camouflaging how hard he works to entertain), Springsteen’s is too genuine for performance routines—he’s there to give ‘em a show and he’ll run himself to exhaustion to do so (making a joke here about him being “born to run” is just waaay too easy).

He’s a genuine rock n’ roller, the real deal, and though he’s shown many different shades in his personality and music, he’s never strayed far from his roots. It’s not easy to find someone who seems equally enraptured by Chuck Berry as he is with Woody Guthrie. Capable of thundering, widescreen optimism, he has the power to inspire; capable of bleak poetry and stark, sophisticated reflections, he can paint vividly troubling portraits. He can blur the lines between myth and reality, but condenses all visions into testaments that are universal, sketches that are deep and vibrant.

brucespringsteen3He’s done chiseled-in-stone classics like Born to Run, The River and Nebraska. He’s delivered strong “minor” work, too, especially Tunnel of Love and The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. And though I’ve never been as enraptured by Born in the USA as most, it was still one of the most deserving blockbusters of its era, and is studded with jukebox classics and the sometimes overlooked (though still charting) “I’m on Fire.” And thirty and forty years into his career, he’s still regularly recording, delivering solid, even strong efforts almost every time, topping the charts with great consistency. For his home state, Bruce’s goodwill and tireless rock ethic is nearly powerful enough to counteract the plague caused by the spray-tanned STD incubators of Jersey Shore. For rock n’ roll, he’s in a league all by himself.

Rosalita (Come out Tonight)
Born to Run
Tenth Avenue Freezout
Wreck on the Highway
Reason to Believe
Born in the USA
I’m on Fire
Streets of Philadelphia
The Rising

Also endorsed: Emmylou Harris, Bob Seger, John Hiatt

smashingpumpkins1It’s hard (if not impossible) to pinpoint exactly what makes Billy Corgan tick, but one thing is for certain—his ambitions and obsessions created a personality and a body of work that you definitely had an opinion about. He’s kind of a mess now (bigger mess, that is), and his “band” kind of sucks today, too, but at his peak during the 90s, he was as crucial and admired a musician for the American youth generation as anyone not named Kurt Cobain.

Alternative rock was hardly new hat when Smashing Pumpkins premiered in 1991, but their broad and indiscriminate fusion of its “history of rock” hodgepodge gave them a fairly unique sound. You can hear traces of post-punk, heavy metal, psychedelia, prog and folk on their debut, Gish, and the range only grew from there. And before long, it was easy to discern a Pumpkins song on the radio from anything else plugging away during alt-rock’s commercial peak circa 1992-96. Corgan’s unmistakable nasal voice was key to that recognition, of course, but their singularity was still rather startling considering how deferential they were to the music that inspired them and how varied their songs could be, especially on that smashingpumpkins2epic double LP of theirs, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. No matter how much Sabbath sludge and beat you heard in “Zero,” New Order bassline in “1979,” or ELO in the multi-track layering/phasing throughout, listeners still knew who it was right away.

The musical expressions were also largely self-contained in their larger packages—not many in alternative rock were making albums with a cohesive approach and technique, but each of the Pumpkins’ full-lengths is performed and produced with specificity. This would eventually bite them in the ass with the overlong MACHINA’s syrupy synth-reverb wool muting the hooks and rendering Corgan’s already stuffed voice even more disagreeable, but what elevated Siamese Dream from upper echelon to the peak of that entire decade’s albums was the fact that whether dealing with roaring riffs, lush and Cocteau-like guitar layers, or moody and pared-back ballads, every song comes from the same place (honorary gold star goes to engineer Butch Vig).

As a lyricist, Corgan had his good days and his bad, but at his best, he could be verbose but poetic—“But for the grace of love who’d will the meaning of heaven from above (“For Martha”), “My love for you just can’t explain why we’re forever frozen, forever beautiful, forever lost inside smashingpumpkins3ourselves” (“Thru the Eyes of Ruby”)—or cover a broad spectrum with only a few words or a simple phrase—“I just want to be me” (“Mayonaise”), “Let me out!” (“Cherub Rock”), “Open your eyes, to these I must lie?” (“Rhinoceros”). And as a musician, producer, studio technician, arranger, mixer and songwriter, where he handled nearly every detail alone—much to the frustration of guitarist James Iha and bassist D’arcy Wretzky—he was virtually incomparable during the mid-90s.

Based on outlandish (and sometimes ludicrous) battles with half of the 90s alt-rock scene (Courtney Love, Pavement, Dave Grohl, Collective Soul, his own band members, etc.), Corgan’s severe vanity and general odiousness certainly doesn’t make this an admirable choice—nor is it made easier by the fact that they become increasingly less appealing with each outing. But he is a musical genius, the Pumpkins are responsible for dozens of incredible songs during their heyday (and at least one unquestionable LP masterpiece and a few more hanging at the precipice), and my youth would have been a lot more unbearable without them.

I Am One
Bury Me
Cherub Rock
Tonight, Tonight
Thru the Eyes of Ruby
The Boy
Appels + Oranjes
Raindrops + Sunshowers

Also endorsed: Garbage, Silversun Pickups, Spacemen 3

It’s entirely possible that Bono’s ego is as arena-size as his band’s music, but U2 is bigger than any of its components. Way bigger. Not only because their songs are aptly described as being “transcendent”—emotionally, politically, spiritually, what have you. Not just because they seem to exude this aura where they practically exist in a different reality and nothing can faze them. Mostly, u21I mean they’re bigger than their components because they’ve been at it for more than thirty years and they’re still the same group of guys. Matured, weathered, but never resigned, they’ve certainly changed in subtle ways, but the reasons they play, the reasons they align, the reasons they work tirelessly, the reasons they fuse together as a whole band instead of a scatter of personalities have never changed. They’ve never made an album or played a show without Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. all being there to give it their full attention and enthusiasm. It’s really kind of a miracle.

Now you don’t get to be one of the biggest bands in the entire world without breaking a few proverbial eggs. Punchlines are always easy to come by when rockers are so severely sincere, but careers are made out of such moving sincerity while jokes and artificiality lead to the novelty bin. It’s also always been easy to snicker at Bono’s grand display of activism and humanitarianism—and some people think he should keep his views to himself and just concentrate on being a musician—but at least he gets things done; how rare is it when an outspoken celebrity does more than just talk and support a fundraiser here and there? If anything, Bono should be refreshing.

u22The only legitimate beef I can think of relates to their track record. It’s unfair to expect a group this “long in the tooth” to keep churning out new music at a ridiculously high level—the number of groups that can not only stick it out through three decades but also keep producing top quality new music this long after their heyday are so slim, I can’t reasonably think of one without introducing some sort of caveat to the debate. So at concert time, when they dip into the new album, it’s probably a cue to make a beeline for the restroom. But at least you can’t say they sound like they’re just going through the motions on new records—the material ain’t usually great, but it still burns with charismatic passion.

Indeed, their mediocre phases and weak songs did take an effect on their placement, but just because U2 at their most misguidedly grandiose and stuffily self-important is capable of missing the mark by a really wide margin doesn’t change the fact that they’ve also been responsible for several of the most incredibly stirring, moving, surging rock songs of their time. They began as a post-punk band heavily influenced by the music of the Clash and Sex Pistols, but they also had larger aspirations and a spiritual bent. That divide/relationship was exhibited in their music, enforced by a propulsive rhythm section with the urgency and muscle of punk intertwined with the Edge’s floating, major key guitar riffs and Bono’s passionate and charismatic vocals. After mixed success in their early years, they embraced a harsher and more robust sound mixed with ambitious sincerity for their u23breakthrough LP War, a departure from the cold synth-pop all the rage at the time in the UK. Embracing an experimental, abstract edge with their expressionistic The Unforgettable Fire album led to more success. Up next? The powerful but natural progression that would push them even further called The Joshua Tree.

By that time, U2 had become one of the biggest and most dramatic bands on the planet. Even when they touched on intimate and personal subjects, there was a sweeping grace and earnest fire in everything they touched. And if U2 was just big, emotional, thoughtful arena rock, they’d have been a solid act. But instead they went towards Achtung Baby, Zooropa, the Passengers “side project,” and Pop in the 90s, drastic stylistic removals that were indebted to alternative, dance, industrial and electronic music. They were daring moves, especially for a group with such a large fanbase, and while results varied wildly during that span, gobsmacking failures were still preferential to tiresome recycling. Even in the 00s, where U2’s solemnity seemed to start eclipsing their talents and aspirations as songwriters, they didn’t feel like regressions or regurgitations. They’ve always been themselves, no matter the astonishing or pedestrian avenues doing so may steer them down. That’s why they’re U2.

I Will Follow
Sunday Bloody Sunday
New Year’s Day
Pride (In the Name of Love)
Where the Streets Have No Name
With or Without You
Bullet the Blue Sky
Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me
Wild Honey
Love and Peace or Else

Also endorsed: The Alarm, Coldplay, the Killers

elviscostello1Elvis Costello is one of rock n’ roll’s great lyricists. Typically, this means he would be poetic and elusive, which he can be, but Costello is really a depicter. He tells stories and paints scenarios, detailed ones, but does it with terse satisfaction. He’s capable of vivid descriptions in a single phrase or a couple of choice adjectives. One can always get the sense of his character’s histories and motives, but he doesn’t simply summarize. The pieces missing aren’t simply left open, but are considered, explored, suggested and ignored. It’s easy to imagine he writes extensive back-stories on a whim but never needs to reveal everything to the listener—his cunning couplets are literary coups. And most astonishing about their penetration? He’s able to get everything across in about three or four minutes before moving on to the next. Even the best folkies and singer/songwriters usually need about twice that to get half as deep.

“He’s a fine figure of a man and handsome, too, with his eyes upon the secret places he’d like to undo,” he sings on “I Hope You’re Happy Now.” On “Little Savage”: “Actions speak louder than words by just a fraction/What’s the use of saying I love you when I’m drinking in distraction?” It’s a universal feeling of frustration when he asks, “Who in the world do you think you are that you pushed me this far? But the name of this thing is not love.” “A pistol was still smoking,” he elviscostello2illustrates on “Less Than Zero,”  “A man lay on the floor. Mr. Oswald said he had an understanding with the law, he said he heard about a couple living in the USA, he said they traded in their baby for a Chevrolet.” And he flawlessly pieces together the complicated heartbreak of an abortion with, “She could have kept her knees together, should have kept her mouth shut. It’s a kinder murder.”

In detailing the allure of the party girl in the same-named song, he says, “Starts like fascination, ends up like a trance.” The body of a different girl on “Beyond Belief” is said to “move with malice.” And he insists that, “you want her broken with her mouth wide open,” when talking about “This Year’s Girl.” And his snarkiness fades just enough for his once broken heart to get broken again on “Alison”—“I heard you let that little friend of mine take off your party dress. I’m not going to get too sentimental like those other sticky valentines.” Maybe it’s my male perspective (and exasperation when it comes to figuring out the fairer sex), but I’ve never read any author who did a better job of cutting to the firm of women instead of judging them in literate shorthand and flat observations with the same economy of words and jagged poetry of Costello.

Costello’s vinegar-and-honey approach is effective in long strides. And had he just been an impeccable wag, he would have made for fine quotes like the ones above but been forgotten as a musician. Yet for more than thirty years now he’s proven to be richly diverse as a songwriter, fostering a fusion of pub, punk, rockabilly and new wave during his early “angry” years, but just as capable of trying his hand at country, soul, reggae, baroque pop, classic song-and-dance style, elviscostello3lounge jazz, and more. He’s performed with dozens of backing bands and collaborators, including the Imposters, the Brodsky Quartet string ensemble, Nick Lowe, Burt Bacharach and T-Bone Burnett, but he’ll always be known for his work with the Attractions, who always brought out the best in him, including two of his three best albums post-Punch the ClockBlood & Chocolate and Brutal Youth (the other being The Delivery Man with the Imposters).

With a striking resemblance in his youth to Buddy Holly and a moniker he borrowed from the King, Costello was always quick to pay tribute to rock roots and his influences, yet somewhere along the way, his eclectic (even encyclopedic) canon has become distinctly his own. Even if the music fails to elicit a strong, resonant response, his trademark vocal and witty wordplay is all his own. Once an angry, young cynic with a chip on his shoulder, now Costello is officially an elder rock statesman just at home appearing with Garrison Keilor on Prairie Home Companion as he is getting devoured by a bear on Stephen Colbert’s Christmas special.

Not too shabby for Declan MacManus, international art thief.

Less Than Zero
Radio, Radio
This Year’s Girl
Pump It Up
Accidents Will Happen
(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?
New Amsterdam
Beyond Belief
Man out of Time
Everyday I Write the Book
Tokyo Storm Warning
Let Him Dangle
Kinder Murder
There’s a Story in Your Voice

Also endorsed: Nick Lowe, Madness, the Specials

otisredding1It would appear to be sacrilege to cover a song like the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” even if it was fresh off its release and not yet a genuine “classic.” Devo did a version about fifteen years after its release that was kinda twitchy and strange, and that was fine. Cat Power did an okay job, but that covers record of hers would have been better without it. Aretha—well, Aretha couldn’t really screw anything up at that time. Blue Cheer, meh; the Supremes, even meh-ier. The less said about Britney Spears’ woeful effort, the better. And then there’s Otis; Otis in the blue; Otis with his physicality; Otis with his energy; Otis with his jerking but velvety vocal cadence; Otis when he could do no wrong. Probably ‘cuz I’m a rock guy more than I’m a soul guy, and probably ‘cuz she’s the original I knew front-to-back first—yeah, I prefer Keith’s riff and Mick’s yelp. But jeez…listen to Otis do that thing. You’d swear no one else had touched it before him.

In my estimation, Otis Redding, the so-called King of Soul, is the greatest male soul singer of all time. He didn’t have Sam’s smoothness or Marvin’s sensuality or Al’s smokiness or Curtis’ delicacy or Smokey’s rasping falsetto, but Otis—more than anyone else—sounded like he wasn’t really singing. It sounded like his voice was coming from deep within, like he had no choice. He could have been a dishwasher or a cab driver or a golf pro or a typist or a card shark or a panhandler, and it wouldn’t have mattered. He’d just be sitting there looking over the Bradford file, tapping a pen cap against his lip, and then his throat would wrench open and words would lurch out in urgent melody. And his brow would crease, his eyes would crinkle shut, otisredding2he’d pitch forward, and he’s start grunting, “Said I want you to love, love me, love me, ba-aby…’til I get enough. Pain in my hearrrt, a little pain in my heart, stop this little pain in my heart.” Then his trap would shut, he’d blink a few times, and resume reading over the Bradford file. His coworkers would stare, a fella in the corner might look around, another might sigh and shake his head. A pair of panties could fly over from reception and land on his shoulder. Too bad this guy’s stuck with the Bradford file.

And that’s what a soul singer should sound like in a perfect world, an easier world where great soul singers could be churned out day and night, a fairer world where planes don’t ice up and plummet into the f-cking Lake Monona. It shouldn’t be a talent show, a time to demonstrate how flexible your vocal cords are, a time to reach that impossible note that could shatter glass, to draw out those syllables until they start resembling entire sentences. It should come from deep within. Like it was being plucked right out of someone’s, duh, soul. An extension of one’s own being, the same way that many describe Jimi Hendrix’s guitar. Like talent don’t even enter into it. Like he could be ninety and grizzled and had smoked two packs unfiltered daily and treated whiskey like an addition to the food otisredding3pyramid between fruits and grains, and still, still the voice would come out and give you a shiver. It’s hard to duck flying panties when you’re that old, though.

Otis was more than just a soul man, though. He was a preacher and rock n’ roll was his gospel. No wonder his voice had that gruff edge to it—testifying should have grit and force. And testify he did, whether doing ballads or thumping R&B. He worked with some of the great rhythm & blues men of the time—notably, the Stax house band Booker T. & the MGs. They gave him these beats and horns that were so powerful, arranged and detailed in large part by Redding himself (who was also a guitarist), and the music seemed to encourage him even further. He’d record entire albums in under twenty-four hours and ad-lib spontaneously onstage. Every performance was something new, no staid recitation. Every record glowed with vitality, even on the less memorable melodies. Every time Otis performed, he delivered fire in a way that would make Prometheus insanely jealous. His career was, of course, cut brutally short, and his canon tragically slim in revisits, but few figures in music regardless of age, genre, race or gender has ever been so galvanizing.

These Arms of Mine
Pain in My Heart
Come to Me
Mr. Pitiful
That’s How Strong My Love Is
I’ve Been Loving You Too Long
I Can’t Turn You Loose
(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)
Try a Little Tenderness
Tramp [with Carla Thomas]
Knock on Wood [with Carla Thomas]
(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay
Hard to Handle
A Lover’s Question

Also endorsed: Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave

[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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