Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Artists (#35-31)


Another five on the way with sounds ranging from industrial, metal, white reggae and more.

Forget about Napster and millionaires bitching and moaning about music theft (though the attitude was unpleasant, they still had a fair beef, like it or not). Forget about the mediocre-to-just-plain awful music they’ve been putting out lately. Forget about the shearing of their manes (along with some show I’ve never seen called Felicity, what was up with people in the 90s going crazy over hair cutting?). Forget the divisive collaboration with Michael Kamen and the San Francisco metallica1Symphony. And why don’t you go ahead and also forget about the fact that I’m not the sort of uptight stickler who’d never admit that about two-thirds of Load, while not in the same league as their 80s classics, is still pretty darn good. Tomorrow, they could come out and say they support Sarah Palin’s “politics,” produce their own line of lavender and jasmine-scented hand lotion and exfoliating creams, and announce that they plan on teaming up with Insane Clown Posse for an album called F-cking Death Magnetics, How Do They Work? and I’d still declare that Metallica is a damn good metal band. No, scratch that, they’re just a damn good band period.

There is a little bias on my part—Metallica was the first band that I ever listened to all the time. The first band where I had to start buying all their old albums. The first band name on a T-shirt that I bought. The first big concert I attended. The first band logo I scribbled on a school folder cover. The soundtrack on my discman during long road trips on summer family vacations. The band that was, like, the best thing ever, man. So then, really, the first band I got all “dorky” about.

But just being a big fan as a teenager wouldn’t have led to a heedless recommendation on my part today. I listened to a lot of music made mediocre by hindsight in those days, after all, almost as much iffy stuff as classics that still hold up more than fifteen years later. But I was never a metallica3“metalhead,” so to speak. Though I wore out my Metallica CDs, I was never into bands like Megadeth, Anthrax or Sepultura, and it would be many years later before I ever gave a listen to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and I never, ever touched the 80s hair metal club then or today. And after I moved on to other things, letting those CDs gather dust, wondering how much of it was genuine and how much was “just a phase,” I revisited their catalog and was amazed by how well it held up.

Most metal tends to be quick, brutish, succinct, but not Metallica and their enormous, complex compositions. They’re kinda proggy, but never ridiculous about it. They’re intricate and technically experimental but never too arty or pretentious. They play with incredible speed but they’re also subtle, expressive. They thrash with seismic heaviness and authority, but are also exceptionally melodic and precise. They bang out those thrusting riffs and boulder-breaking beats, but they don’t get stale or dull or repetitive. The lyrics are usually just right, too—simple and blunt but also wide-ranging and rarely tediously familiar or stupid. And every role was filled with the right metallica2personnel, a bounty of musical talent and attitude. Lars Ullrich’s drums, Cliff Burton’s basslines (and Jason Newsted’s solid replacement), Kirk Hammett’s leads—all of a high caliber, all given showcases without sacrificing unified group dynamic. And James Hetfield has a really good metal voice, shapeshifting over the entirety of his career without ever reducing himself to the irritating throat-shredding doom-snarl or absurd falsetto wail that typifies the two major schools of the genre’s “singing.”

Their work ethic is commendable and they tour relentlessly. I’ve seen them three times in my life and every show was great fun—erupting columns of flames is really all a growing boy needs in his rock concerts. Though The Black Album is loved too little and Kill ‘Em All is loved too much, their first five albums belong in every avid music fan’s collections, regardless of their interest in thrash riffs and headbanging. No matter how flat and uninspired they’ve become since the mid-90s, no matter how bleak a future return to excellence looks, no matter how much it goes against my refined instincts (pretentiously elitist, really), there hasn’t been a finer metal band in at least three decades. And this is coming from someone who always thought “Enter Sandman” was kinda overrated.

Fade to Black
Creeping Death
Master of Puppets
Wherever I May Roam
Note: Sorry, but a 60+ minute tape just doesn’t hold a lot of classic Metallica

Also endorsed: Slayer, Motörhead, System of a Down

johnlennon1John Lennon was naked. In the literal sense, of course, he bared it all with Yoko Ono for the infamous album cover of Two Virgins, but that in itself was largely symbolic of his attitude at being figuratively naked (which was what I was getting at)—he had nothing to hide, no shame in self, and would reveal that which was most private at the risk of condemnation. Here’s a broad swipe (neither inaccurate nor properly telling): Paul sang his love songs, George did his god songs, Ringo did other people’s songs, John sang John songs: his thoughts, his fears, his philosophies, his pains, his frustrations, his passions, everything. And it was raw and unflinching; there were no reservations, doubts, recessions, censors. The primal scream therapy he underwent before recording Plastic Ono Band had a drastic effect on not just his songwriting, but his larger societal purpose and role—it’s never an easy transition from pop celebrity to outspoken activist.

It’s not the responsibility of entertainers in the public eye to engage in the world debate—many would prefer the celebrities stay out of it altogether—but John Lennon was far beyond a mere entertainer. That’s not some rapturous deification from a fanatic insisting he was elevated among men; merely an observation of virtual fact—his status in pop culture and the public eye rivaled the royals, and greatly exceeded them outside of merry ol’ England. He could have been perfectly content simply being a songwriter and musician, but that wasn’t who John Lennon was. This isn’t The Top 100 Artists Who Did Other Stuff Too, though (talk about a rather rubbish title to begin with), and while it’s admirable that he not only strove to deliver a message of “radical peace” johnlennon2but also “walked the walk,” so to speak, it’s not why he’s here. He’s here because even after the Beatles broke apart, he remained an excellent artist in his own right that recorded a great number of bold, risky, remarkable songs in an irritatingly short active span.

With Plastic Ono Band, Lennon delivered one of the most viscerally raw, uninhibited, emotionally damaging, and utterly honest albums ever made. Even though it’s no longer formally “shocking” by today’s standards, it’s difficult to absorb even though Lennon gives the listener numerous opportunities to enter his world. After some twenty or so run-throughs, I don’t think it’s possible to not have a reaction to it. Imagine was less focused but nearly as powerful in long spurts, especially on the bitter tirade of “Gimme Some Truth,” the tender and apologetic love song “Jealous Guy,” and, of course, the timeless title track, as striking, profound, and unreservedly indelible as any song carried out by the Beatles. Albums underrated (Mind Games), slight (Rock n’ Roll), and, ahem, interesting (Sometime in New York City) followed.

A retreat from the public eye during the second half of the 70s following the birth of his second son, Sean, left many to speculate about his future as a recording artist. When he finally did return johnlennon3to the studio, he set out to make a double LP with Yoko called Double Fantasy. Three weeks after its release, he was celebrating the album’s critical and commercial success on December 8, 1980 when Mark David Chapman ambushed him outside his apartment building and shot him four times in the back. I can’t comment directly on the effect his murder had—I was still in the womb when it happened—but there’s a reason why so many felt so shattered by it as to compare it to losing a close friend or family member.

His legacy will always be first and foremost as a Beatle, but because of his exploits, his gambles, his activism, the brevity of his life after the Fab Four fizzled, all of the promise shattered by flashes of smoke and powder, the memory of him seems to bend at will between pop prophet and accidental martyr. It’s a natural response to elevate such talents, especially in the wake of sudden, tragic deaths—another obvious example will be coming in a couple of days—but it’s not what they need. Better yet: remember John as a brilliant musical innovator, remember him as a Beatle, remember him for “Instant Karma!” and “Working Class Hero” and “Woman” and many more. Remember him as a small man rendered large, who in a very small, simple way, really did change the world.

Give Peace a Chance
Instant Karma!
I Found Out
Working Class Hero
Jealous Guy
Gimme Some Truth
Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
One Day (At a Time)
Bring on the Lucie (Freda People)
Whatever Gets You Through the Night
Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)

Also endorsed: Harry Nilsson, Robyn Hitchcock, Will Oldham

police1Any group that can shift between post-punk, white reggae, new wave, jazz fusion, power pop, art rock, and adult contemporary with seemingly effortless ease and make it all highly palatable for an enormous, respectable audience is worth a good share of praise. The Police pulled it off with deft skill and managed to be one of the signature pop bands of both the 70s and the 80s, even though they only existed for a few years in either one.

It’s also not easy to come off as coolly unruffled and hip when doing things like, well, white reggae and adult contemporary, and certainly not when you’re known for belting out tunes about the toll mankind is taking on the ecosystem, penning a discourse aimed at a blow-up doll, searching for companionship using the reliable and speedy delivery system of seafaring bottled notes, and crying out, “Every little thing she does is magic!” Songs about prostitutes could be cooler if you’re talking about the myth of a guy being such a between-the-sheets badass that he can convince a high-class type to give him one on the house, but no, “Roxanne” is just an observation of a prostitute, nothing more. And sleazy as it might be, what an opportunity to exploit school girl fantasies in “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” but then they go and make it sound all sinister and ambivalent. Stuff about a suspicious secretary in the Kremlin in “Miss Gradenko”? And they wrote the ultimate stalker anthem pop song. Real cool, guys.

police2But before Sting went all…well, Sting on the world, he and his mates Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland indeed were cool; very cool, in fact. They were a stripped-down power trio with a bassist who was also the singer and primary songwriter. Their initial style of nervous, youthful energy coupled with smart but scruffy pop sensibilities typically sent a band in one of two directions—either you write love songs or you write political songs. The Police did both, but not in predictable ways. Some of that unpredictability lends itself to their reggae flavor (with hints of ska thrown in occasionally for good measure). Even more unpredictable—morphing in less than four years into one of the biggest and most professionally polished rock bands in the world.

Their performance was stuffed with cunning economy, their lyrics overrun with ambiguity. How else do you explain reggae beat that has the velocity and impact of rock n’ roll or the fact that people put “Every Breath You Take” on romance CD mixes? They named a song “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” and actually got away with it. Sting “literally” talks to a dinosaur on Synchronicity and has the temerity to give him a cutesy-formal “Mr.” title. And when they did go explicitly political, they do it in strange, sidelong fashions—“The general only wants to teach France and dance/His army life doesn’t give him any romance…Bombs away/But we’re okay.” Bold it must have been to rhyme police3“influenza” with “Firenza” (was going with “flu” and “Flo” too lowbrow?). Bolder it was to release the long, spacey reggae and transposition between the feeling of love and the moon landing called “Walking on the Moon” as a single—where it went to the top of the UK charts.

And you just can’t go around calling yourself Sting unless you’re a big enough superstar to get away with it (though even if he went by Herb Falaffel—or Gordon Summer, for that matter—he’d still be world famous). Sting was a big superstar, and rightfully so, and his talent at songwriting was so far beyond the “novelties” of the other two that it seemed only natural for him to go solo. That immense balance of power shift, coupled with the hectic pressures of frequent world tours that kept getting bigger and bigger, resulted in the inevitable breakup. At least they didn’t go out leaving us imagining them conquering the world if they had just kept going—they were a trio of conquistadors with a Cortez who had bigger dreams. And if you doubt their magnitude, consider that their reunion world tour from 2007-08 was the third biggest earning tour ever. So much for people loathing the fuzz.

Next to You
So Lonely
Can’t Stand Losing You
Message in a Bottle
Regatta de Blanc
Don’t Stand So Close to Me
Canary in a Coalmine
Invisible Sun
Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic
Rehumanize Yourself
Walking in Your Footsteps
Synchronicity II
Every Breath You Take
King of Pain
Wrapped Around Your Finger

Also endorsed: The Cars, Duran Duran, Billy Idol

When I was a scrappy young lad with a taste for the rock-despair, I was actually rather astonished to learn that most critics slathered Nine Inch Nails with praise. At the time, I couldn’t understand how an angry man filling his music with a cancerous outlook, grinding guitars, firing range-loud beats, shards of electronic noise, and scalding profanities and blasphemies could be appreciated by those who I then perceived to be snobby intellectuals. I didn’t see it as beautiful; I thought the appeal nin1was directed at a culture trying to escape cutesy pop, dinosaur rock, party rap, and “old people music.” Naïvety corrupts the mind, but damn I thought I was “cool” to dig music that I thought for certain my parents couldn’t possibly like. But oh, shit, my mom’s a fan now (and even thinks Trent Reznor’s kind of a handsome fella when he cleans himself up).

Still, no one else in the mainstream sounded quite like Nine Inch Nails, then or now. Reznor saw what he liked in industrial music, what was appealing in synth-pop and dance, what was aggressive in metal and punk, and found all of this beauty lurking underneath. Sometimes he would produce these lovely, evocative things on the surface, building semi-ambient and largely-instrumental pieces with haunting piano figures and warm but wounded synthesizer bleeds. Other times you’d have to stick your head way deep in the sand to hear the calm over the thrashing, violent waves. His songs could be misshapen and cluttered, but fundamentally, it was little more than experimentation with the conventions.

nin2He produced an appealing brand of industrial rock, but he didn’t necessarily sanitize it for mass consumption. Giving it a humanist slant was important—most industrial music retreats from anything with blood in it to a cold, distant, mechanized landscape that almost makes Ralf Hütter seem like Donna Summer—but so was emphasizing legitimate dance beats underneath the sweaty tension and programmed fissures that Bernard Summer would drool over and the aggro-guitars that the kids were loving in the 90s (I’ve given myself neck cramps banging my head to the aural assault of tracks like “Burn” and “Wish”). Stripped bare, he’s an assured and conventional pop songwriter, but he had the maverick, twisted sensibilities to create harsh worlds, using machines to take ordinary instruments making ordinary sounds, filter, process and sequence them, and produce these mangled, mutant noises. Sometimes digitally fractured, sometimes overrun with static, the notes were skewed out of shape but still shuffled to make logical sense once it gets past the “warning flag” of the brain that something’s amiss. Any half-second of NIN’s more hardcore side sounds like a chaotic battering, but when ordered and processed with the efficiency and ear of a pop genius, he lays them all out in fascinating and highly melodic ways.

For all of the complications and complexity of his layered maze of sound, there was much less convolution on the surface. His intriguing ideas and dark thoughts were spelled out in blunt terms that were as manufactured as his soundscapes. The most common point of contention with his music resides here—it’s inescapable that his frank misery stew could be vague and repetitive (the same old sulking and self-defeat that reveals little in origin). But then you listen to one of his fledgling disciples—Gravity Kills, Filter, Stabbing Westward, etc.—and you hear the same diatribes, wretchedness and atrocities without the same level of conviction, character or authenticity (or, hell, theatricality for that matter). When properly disciplined and inspired, some of his words have nin3unsettling power—“I hurt myself today to see if I still feel,” “Grey would be the color if I had a heart.” And even at their least valuable, laid over the roar of splintered keyboards and machinegun drumbreaks, you won’t care what you’re screaming along to, anyway.

At his most nihilistic, at his most heretical, even at his least original and inspired, Reznor was always creating something that you wanted to hear. His ability to take the familiar (even the clichés) and warp them, break them apart and rebuild them, give them feral, violent qualities or strip them to the lonely essentials, and present them in a way that is completely different but still very alluring on the inside (even at their harshest and most confrontational) is a skill that few if any possess in the same quotient. If anything, his screeching and noisy electro-metal assaults are kinder to the senses than his miserable melancholy dying on fragile piano keys—at least the destructive stuff gives the listener a cathartic means to vent with screaming, spastic relief. And that’s also key: musical diversity. Not only is he skilled at blending dance, thrash and noise, but he’s also ambitious enough to try lots of different things without making it seem like an experimental exercise—spectral ambience, art pop, glitch, crippled ballads, remixes galore. In his strange little niche of the steely-fragile and hideous-beauty, no one can touch Nine Inch Nails.

Terrible Lie
A Warm Place
The Perfect Drug
We’re in This Together [single edit]
La Mer
Where Is Everybody
And All That Could Have Been
The Hand That Feeds

Also endorsed: Coil, Ministry, Marilyn Manson

bobmarley1I never went through a Rastafari phase in my life. Thank goodness. As much as I enjoyed certain, um, horticultural recreations during college, I would have looked absolutely ridiculous slouching around with nappy dreads hanging out underneath a rastahcap, reeking of patchouli (I know, it doesn’t make sense), and saying things like, “Ah sey one,” and, “Dem doondoos is irie, mon.” And even when it came to listening to music, I never had a run where I played Bob Marley day and night, which seemed to be about as ubiquitous on campuses across the country as that poster of John Belushi with his “COLLEGE” shirt, douches with "flavor savers" and acoustic guitars, and “Take Back the Night” women student marches.

I certainly enjoyed his laidback “reggae pop” songs like “Jammin’,” the soothing tempest of peace-n’-harmony numbers like “One Love,” and the easily-maneuverable choruses of his political songs like “Get Up, Stand Up,” but the source and temper of his spiritual side eluded me then and still eludes me today. It wasn’t that I couldn’t understand how he came to have that aura, and I didn’t need to know the specifics of his faith to appreciate it (the same way I can appreciate good music with overtones specific to the followers of Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, etc.). Who doesn’t like the idea of herb getting you to God? And I can certainly dig its open-endedness—rules bobmarley2can cripple organized religion (that whole “organization” thing gets in the way, you see). It was an embargo on my own logical, not the theological. I never grew an obsession in my inner being that consumed my lifestyle.

But I’ve also never been overwhelmed by the mysticism and religious slant of numerous other great artists (including several on this list like Van Morrison, U2, etc.). That doesn’t prevent me from appreciating their artistry and musicality. And with Bob Marley, where I once was able to recognize appeal as an observer of its rhythm and hooks—a study of its legitimate technique and performance—now I’ve been able to submerge myself into its peculiar color. When emerging, it beads against my skin and then rolls off—osmosis of the cosmic need not overtake me.

I’ve always admired his politics more, anyhow. The words and attitude linger. Outside of those early-70s Motown records, did anyone of that era inspire more fiery furor in potent depictions of cruelty, sorrow and despair? “Buffalo Soldier” tackled slave trade and genocide through the infamous black soldiers, “No Woman No Cry” explored optimism through devastation, “Redemption bobmarley3Song” targeted emancipation from “mental slavery,” an opportunity for freedom and enlightenment. In the extreme poverty of Trenchtown where he grew up, he still managed to find optimism. He strove to break the proverbial shackles of the Jamaicans around him and his message was converted to universal significance. He inspired a genuine movement more than nearly any popular musician to ever live.

With or without the rest of the Wailers (but especially with), the music stoked a fire around Marley. It wasn’t particularly aggressive or impenetrable, but the backward beat accents skew any semblance of conventional blues/rock impact and the interplay (opposition, really) of the horns gives it a strangely funky life. But it was in Marley’s rich and frequently tranquil voice and the liberating words they carried that made him a legend. His art is real, it’s important, it’s capable of truly moving people, truly inspiring. He’s the reason we all even know about reggae music, let alone the reason we listen to it.

Soul Rebel
Stir It Up
Get Up, Stand Up
I Shot the Sheriff
No Woman No Cry
Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)
Waiting in Vain
Three Little Birds
One Love/People Get Ready
Is This Love
Satisfy My Soul
So Much Trouble in the World
Could You Be Loved
Redemption Song
Buffalo Soldier

Also endorsed: Jimmy Cliff, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Sly and Robbie

[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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