Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Artists (#30-26)


Getting closer to the Top 20 now. Today you can read about acid rockers, New York punks, and more.

slyfamilystone1Sly & the Family Stone were an ideal, an optimism, a celebration, and a message. We all get that. They were also exciting, liberating, the music loaded with fat hooks and infectious energy. They were one of those rare acts whose songs could actually make you dizzy, and their layered, psychedelic funk sound was carried out by the conviction of seven unique individuals, led by the legendary Sly Stone. Discounting backing bands for soul/R&B stars and the like, real multi-racial groups (and multi-gender, to boot) were rarities when Sly & the Family Stone came around. And they acknowledged it boldly, without patronizing to the point of gimmickry.

That pervading sense of hope and promise did not pay off for Sly, though. Around the turn of the decade, he became strung-out, bitter, resentful. Albums like There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Fresh reflected the turbulence in his mind and the toil his body was under from so much cocaine and PCP ingested to ease the pain. They’re deep, weathered, distressed records with only the faintest of silver linings, the indestructible sort that pervades even the most disillusioned hearts. But the sense of unity, equality, and familial bond that he sought to elucidate simply did not exist in the outside world that Sly and everyone else observed. For deeply troubled racists in pockets all slyfamilystone2around the country, it only defined the divide in skin color through harsher, uglier light. That sort of thing can push even the most reasonable men over the edge.

But if his efforts to incite social upheaval through union, brotherhood, and rousing pleasure were his only legacy, people wouldn’t be buying their records beyond the realm of curiosity and professorial documentation of a tumultuous climate. The advances they made in the development of funk music is their greatest musical achievement. Before Sly, funk was more strict and simplistic, a uniformly strutting sort monopolized by James Brown and his horn stabs, snappish guitars, and herky-jerky bass. But then here comes Sly & the Family Stone with more complex arrangements, deeper instrumentation, and a connection between introductory figures and instrumental roles that echoed of modal jazz far more than rock and R&B. Their music was dense and busy but not overcrowded, and no matter how celebratory or frantic it became, there was always a deep, heavy groove keeping it against the shaking ground.

And the performance was no rehearsed calculation. You can hear the excitement in their early records, the conflict and growing desperation in the Stand! era, the fatigued sourness in the early-70s efforts. It was no routine—how Sly felt is given voice by he and the rest of the Family Stone. That family began fracturing the moment that Stone began his spiral into depression; replacements slotted in and out during the 70s could never replicate the same sense of harmony, pessimistic as much of it was during those dark days.

slyfamilystone3While his labor would ultimately be too much for the group’s successful longevity—after Fresh, they dropped a couple of quality singles but mostly mediocre full-lengths, and they were barely functioning by the late-70s—his spirit still lives on. Not just the optimism that once colored his music and soul, or the accord of a deep, diverse band functioning as a single ambitious unit, but in the revolution he inspired beyond the outreach to society. Parliament-Funkadelic, the J.B.’s, Prince, Public Enemy, Stevie Wonder…these artists owe most of their careers to Sly’s inventions and revelations. Out of the spotlight for many years (though he “ended” his unofficial retirement in 2007), not much is known by the world of his thoughts, feelings and memories today, but no matter what he thinks of the staggered, broken, incomplete steps the nation’s taken in forging a United States with united races, he can doubtlessly be proud of that accomplishment.

Dance to the Music
Are You Ready?
Love City
I Want to Take You Higher
Everyday People
Sing a Simple Song
You Can Make It If You Try
Hot Fun in the Summertime
Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)
Everybody Is a Star
Family Affair
Luv N’ Haight
(You Caught Me) Smilin’
In Time
If You Want Me to Stay
Loose Booty

Also endorsed: War, Santana, Red Hot Chili Peppers

I admired the avant artistry of the no wave aesthetic far more than I admired the “songs.” It’s hard to get behind music that’s intentionally unpleasant to pop sensibilities, no matter how much preferable it still is to teenybopper fads. The climactic accumulation of all those early, principled aural-mutineers, from Glenn Branca to the Pop Group and Japan’s Friction and beyond, was Sonic sonicyouth1Youth, New York’s premier guitar tech “pop” band. No wave’s descendant in noise rock continued long after Sonic Youth explored their options, but they remained the pinnacle of its prospect. They understood its method of deconstruction and gave it variety; more than that, they gave it purpose. They were plugging in ill-fitting musical enemies side-by-side, loaded up on a flurry of dissonant drone, “malfunctioned” tuning, and peals of rankled feedback, and finally gave it shape, doing things that Pere Ubu hadn’t even yet dreamt about. It was a “small” revolution, for no better reason than its effect on an unpopular musical brand frequently ignored by the mainstream, but still a revolution.

Sonic Youth just doesn’t get much attention on mainstream rock radio. They never have, not even when the alternative craze and MTV video rotation made them minor stars during the early part of the 90s. They are the greatest (and certainly most important) band to have stuck it out for more than a decade without a single gold record (that’s right, sixteen albums and not a single one—even #27 below got gold for a greatest hits collection). Even though they were never exactly lighting up the charts or hanging platinum certifications on their walls, their band name is known even by people who’d never pick up an alternative CD, and they did a much better job of bringing atonal expressionism to the mainstream than nearly all of their other no wave/noise rock peers combined. The fact that they just recently entered their fourth decade and are still regularly producing new music gives them a longevity that rivals nearly anyone around—we’re talking Dylan, Bruce and Neil territory. But so what if they never sold all that well? Fellow NY noise rock godfathers the Velvet sonicyouth2Underground never sold well either, and what argument still needs to be made in their favor? And speaking of which, why the hell doesn’t VU ever get radioplay on classic rock stations? What is this world coming to?!

Those early records where songwriting took a backseat to experimental sound collages don’t always hold up beyond curiosity—their eponymous debut mini-LP is rather interesting, especially when their squalid guitars crest over tinny beats that sound recycled from krautrock, but Confusion Is Sex and its fellow EP Kill Yr Idols are both sometimes difficult to bear. Extremity and chaos are tough to navigate together, so when sensible songcraft began sorting through the distorted maze on the nightmarish “Americana” Bad Moon Rising and temperamental EVOL, the exercises were beginning to crystallize into lucid, even appealing creations (though still somewhat radical in nature). Then came back-to-back masterpieces Sister and Daydream Nation and nothing was the same again.

Increasingly “comfortable” albums like Goo, Dirty, Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, and Washing Machine followed, each potent divisions between their abstract cacophonous roots and the rich, diverse pop capabilities of the writers. And they were on a major label even though No Star was the only one to even break into the US Top 50. The staid, forgettable compositions of A Thousand Leaves and NYC Flowers & Ghosts represented the only major speed bump in their career, requiring an album like Murray Street to jumpstart their career as a “comeback” even though (commercially-speaking) they didn’t go far and didn’t have much catching up to do. But those drab years don’t create timeline potholes—Sonic Youth was never about trajectory or outsider-satisfaction. They do their own thing and no one else really sounds like them; no one else sonicyouth3writes song with explicit melodic cues to Thurston, Lee, Kim and Steve beyond waves of trebly, dissonant guitar. That technique arose because the band couldn’t afford quality guitars when they started, so they had to improvise with what they had to create a wide variety of unusual sounds. They’d jam screwdrivers into the frets just to get a brand new timbre. And bringing Lee Ranaldo aboard from Glenn Branca’s band expanded the conceptualization of noise-as-art even further. 

I saw Sonic Youth perform in a ballroom around the time that Sonic Nurse was getting released. It was not a proper show; I can’t remember what the reason behind it was, but there were several other artists there (including Paul Weller) who came on, played for about a half hour or so and took off. Needless to say, it was not a crowd of Sonic Youth fans. In fact, the building was only about a third full and when I rose to my feet when Sonic Youth came onstage, a man in a cheap suit behind me asked me to sit back down. The show was more or less ruined for me then and I can’t even remember what songs the band played. But I still went home later and started listening to everything Sonic Youth I had. And even bought a few more of their CDs. Even in a neutral place and an irritated mood they inspire passion—passionate exasperation at their early muddled endeavors, passionate fervor for their multiple masterworks, passionate bewilderment that this “noise” can be so beautiful and liberating. Anyone accusing them of playing without ardor, with their lack of big hooks, exuberant vocals, and vigorous grandstand performance, has been baited and trained too maliciously by the predictable. This sound is alive and that scares the hell out of me.

Death Valley ‘69
Expressway to Yr Skull
Pacific Coast Highway
Teen Age Riot
Silver Rocket
Hey Joni
Tunic (Song for Karen)
Swimsuit Issue
Wish Fulfillment

Also endorsed: Glenn Branca, Dinosaur Jr., Minutemen

doors1Jim Morrison might not be the quintessential rock star, but he was the template for every charismatic but mysterious frontman to follow. In a time of excess, he was the master of excess, the Lizard King that was capable of taking enough drugs “to stop an elephant.” He had a mystic blues sensuality about him: the tall, dark and handsome cliché, clad in tight pants, sporting a leonine tumble of hair, flashing black, mysterious eyes. Hounded by the law, conqueror of California girls, ballsy enough to take on Ed Sullivan’s censors, he is the reason why nice, stable fellas still always seem to lose out to the bad boy. And if you’re still not buying it, there’s the other side of the fence: he was reckless, problematic, nurtured by narcotics and an inflated ego, frequently drunk, and responsible for some of the most pretentious poetry of the time. Yep, now the mold is starting to take shape.

The Doors had a dark, exotic and dangerous quality about their music that was a perfect reflection of that unforgettable frontman. Psychedelic music, no matter how weird and far-flung it could be, tended to be bright, playful and colorful amidst the frenzy, but the Doors was “acid rock”—sinister and misshapen and paranoid and uncomfortable. Songs like “The End” feel culled from real nightmares, “Strange Days” and “People Are Strange” reflect a mistrust of a frightening world, and any dealer commanding you to “break on through to the other side” like Morrison did is not a man doors3whose hand you’d want to shake (or pills you’d want to sample). Their fixation on the blues provided entryways to the group at their most brazen and obsessed, and once the listener latches in to that model of influence, that level of thinking, there’s no escape.

Lacking an escape is why the Doors are so widely admired, even deified in certain circles. They were like a drug trip. From the outside, it looks unpleasant, hostile, even potentially damaging; their critics stand on the outside, glancing through glass, spotting Morrison’s least cogent writing and declaring it ludicrous, viewing their huge epics in pieces and declaring them long, shapeless, “artistic” masturbation sessions, scorning them for their obvious influences and self-important artistry. But as soon as someone gets inside, really crawls down deep and lets it soak against the flesh, he or she is converted. And when the high comes to its natural conclusion, that person can think back either fondly or disgustedly, and then clinically observe the experience from a distance and decide that it was all preposterous pap. Until the resistance wears down and they leap back in and it’s like they never left and they never want to go back to the “normal world.”

Their hit parade speaks for itself: from epic rockers that classic rock radio will play until the end of time like “Light My Fire” and “L.A. Woman” to more faintly familiar undersung gems like “The Spy” and “Five to One” just begging for widespread rediscovery. And Jim Morrison is such a larger-than-life figure that his gravesite has become a major tourist attraction in Paris, a city with no shortage of tourist attractions. But people sometimes sleep on the other three members. It was really unusual for a rock band in those days (or any days) to not have a bass player, but John Densmore’s drums were not wanting, carrying the blues strut with finesse as much as force and almost evacuating altogether when they went atmospheric and weird. Robby Krieger’s fingerstyle guitar parts were flexible and never too brawny to upstage anyone else. And Ray Manzarek electrified on the keyboard, the sinister, damaged heart of their music.

doors2And if Manzarek’s keys were the heart (and Densmore’s beats the backbone and Krieger’s licks the ligaments), Morrison was the disembodied head. Not only did the Doors forgo the bass (except for L.A. Woman and the best-ignored albums that followed Morrison’s death), but they also went against the tradition at the time of uniting the sound, organizing harmonies, and making each vocal integral to the purpose and drive of the other instruments. Instead, Morrison was in his own little world; while the band was creating lurching grooves, morphine freakouts, and dim, oily pools shaken by sudden pyrotechnic flashes, Morrison brooded and vamped away from the beat. Like Mark E. Smith’s off-the-cuff rants with the Fall more than a decade later, the Doors were like a vehicle for Morrison’s offbeat imagery and prophet-of-doom terrorizing. Luckily, on the occasions when Morrison rambled (or fell over onstage, too wasted to proceed), the music that coaxed those maze-like messages and feverish descriptions was hypnotic. They were always the same thrilling group whether Morrison was being an awe-inspiring rock god, an over-drugged and incoherent headache, or that reckless bad boy you know is no good for you but you still gotta try to tame. It’s culled from the Mick Jagger model with an extra dose of devil-may-care wild thing. Yep, that’s the frontman mentality rock had been waiting for.

Break on Through (To the Other Side)
Crystal Ship
Light My Fire
Back Door Man
Strange Days
People Are Strange
Love Me Two Times
The Unknown Soldier
Five to One
Touch Me
Roadhouse Blues
Peace Frog
The Spy
L.A. Woman
Love Her Madly
Riders on the Storm
Note: You may need a third tape side just to squeeze in “The End” and “When the Music’s Over,” which were just too long to bother with in the limited space available

Also endorsed: Love, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother & the Holding Company

Mr. Burns: Have the Rolling Stones killed.
Smithers: But, sir, those aren’t—
Mr. Burns: Do as I say!

ramones1Monty was, of course, confusing the Rolling Stones with the “minstrels” hired to perform at his birthday bash—the Ramones. Joey announced, “I’d just like to say: ‘This gig sucks,’” before the band launched into a blistering, snotty version of “Happy Birthday” that left Burns’ fragile shell concealing concentrated evil positively shaken. C.J. didn’t make matters any better when he sneered, “Go to hell, you old bastard,” before the curtain closed. Though Marky cheerfully announced to his bandmates, “Hey, I think they liked us!” Very amusing.

But back to the cruel cartoon codger’s confusion—mistaking the Ramones for the Stones. There was a time when London’s Rolling Stones represented the same anarchic, give-no-shit-and-take-even-less spirit as that American gang of rock n’ roll rebels. More than a decade after first bursting onto the scene, though, the edge was starting to dull, and with all those bluesy ballads and dalliances with psych-pop in the bank and an upcoming flirtation with disco in the forecast, their role as dangerous rock mavericks had slipped away.

It was 1976. Rock n’ roll was being dominated by bombastic arena shows, supra-sensitive balladeering, epic prog compositions, massive guitar solos, symphonics, synthesizers, theatrics, space age imagery, golden gods. So if you thought that “bigger” is always “better,” what a time to be alive—a Tenacious D show probably had more subtlety than the typical hour of FM radio rock. ramones2So here comes these four guys from Queens—dirty and unkempt bowl-cuts, motorcycle jackets, torn jeans, big high-tops, lots of attitude. They were sick and tired of the grandiose pomposity and wanted to kick out the jams perhaps even more than the MC5. So they did the only natural thing—strip back, return to the rock n’ roll of the 50s and early 60s, play fast, play loud, K(eep) I(t) S(imple) S(tupid), and be precisely that simple and stupid on the attack by yelping various adolescent rants and slogans over the blur of three-chord charges and tom/cymbal tantrums.

This was before “punk rock” was an ideology, a fashion statement, a way of life. The Ramones just wanted to pound out lightning fast rock songs, pausing only to take the occasional sharp intake of breath, and then vacate the stage before anyone really knew what had just happened. They were famous for rapid, terse songs, usually spent after two or two-and-a-half minutes (or less), with breathless bridges, chugging chords, and no showy solos in sight. Their subjects were bratty, youthful, and honed mostly to shout-along phrases—even though I’ve never been tempted to try sniffing glue myself, I loved hearing Joey barking about it. As for those quick exits, they were also infamous for taking those short, fast songs and playing them even faster live, sprinting through about a dozen songs in under a half hour. That they could leave crowds satisfied after shows that sometimes only made it to about twenty minutes is a testament to the restless anxiety of this new thing called “punk” and their professional-rebel skills at agitating in a hurry, keeping the fever pitch at the same intensity throughout, and neatly folding right before crashing and burning.

Yet “crashing and burning” is what punk was built to do. Widely viewed today as one of the most important rock bands of their time, the Ramones were responsible for the late-70s punk scene ramones3after their debut LP was imported from across the Atlantic and was devoured by a generation of angry, young men in the UK. Every last one of them, including legends like the Sex Pistols, Clash, Damned and Adverts, named the Ramones as one of their greatest influences. Back in the States, their raucous live shows made CBGB’s the place to be for New York art kids and post-punks, where acclaimed acts as diverse as Television, Blondie and Talking Heads all cut their teeth. But beyond any of that, they were f-cking fun. Check your brain at the door and gleefully beat on some brats with baseball bats.

They would later become more overtly poppy after their first few records and slightly more straight-rock ambitious as the 80s kicked off, but they never lost their youthful vigor. Joey’s idol Pete Townshend’s “I hope I die before I get old” mentality applied to them perfectly—if they ever got too aged (or even worse, too matured, ecch), they would simply cease to be the Ramones. They never had the chance to make it to the grandpa circuit anyhow—after a series of dwindling efforts the band split in 1996 and three of the four original members passed away in fairly quick succession: Johnny and Joey to cancer and Dee Dee to a drug overdose. Slack repetition is the easy knock against ‘em, but so long as the tours kept going, only an a-hole would complain.

Marky was spot on, though: we all liked ‘em.

Blitzkrieg Bop
Beat on the Brat
Judy Is a Punk
Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue
Havana Affair
53rd & 3rd
Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment
California Sun
Rockaway Beach
Sheena Is a Punk Rocker
Teenage Lobotomy
Cretin Hop
I Wanna Be Sedated
Don’t Come Close
Danny Says
Rock ‘N’ Roll High School
We Want the Airwaves
The KKK Took My Baby Away
She’s a Sensation
Psycho Therapy
Too Tough to Die
Wart Hog
Planet Earth 1988
Bonzo Goes to Bitburg

Also endorsed: X, the Dictators, Johnny Thunders

It’s rare for an important or popular band to carry on after the death of their lead singer, and even rarer for them to keep going at the same level without a generous “skipping of the beat” (I don’t know where AC/DC found Brian Johnson, but could there have been a more perfect replacement for the late, great Bon Scott?). Ian Curtis was considerably more famous after he took his own life joydivnorder1than he was beforehand (though never a household name), and his gloomy post-punk band Joy Division seemed destined for semi-obscurity after his early end. But without skipping that proverbial beat, Bernard Sumner took over as lead vocalist, they changed their group’s name to New Order, and began drifting steadily to a synth-heavy brand of dark dance pop.

While there were faint growing pains in those first couple years, they hid it well. Though New Order sounded more confused and less assured during that time, they still produced a solid LP (Movement) and at least one masterful single in the form of “Ceremony” (to say nothing for its excellent B-side “In a Lonely Place”), written shortly before Curtis’ suicide. But soon after, singles like “Temptation,” “Confusion” and (especially) “Blue Monday” obliterated all doubts that they wouldn’t be able to carry on without their tortured but fascinating former frontman.

That frontman seemed born for cult adulation while stardom would always be elusive. His voice was deep, grim, distant, unusual (in other words, classically-trained it ain’t), and mixed in the studio to sound like he was crying out from the other side of the room, wrenched with exquisite joydivnorder2pain, and ghostly still in the mortal coil. It was the perfect fit for the dins of shadow and moody anguish that engulfed Joy Division (named after the prostitution wing of a Nazi concentration camp). In about three short years they managed two nearly perfect albums and a handful of scene-defining singles that still resonate with the pop-depressives (none mightier than “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” a song so iconic that it could have made Joy Division an ineffaceable act all by itself). The climactic run of their final LP Closer is such a chilling but absorbing statement—including sendoff “Decades,” which I still narrowly think is their all-time most powerful composition—that similarly gloomy, goth-friendly bands have been futilely trying to replicate it for, ahem, decades since.

Which brings us to New Order, a dance-happy butterfly to Joy Division’s mordant caterpillar. Sure, New Order was shrouded in darkness just like their former incarnation, and they could be startlingly bleak, too, but Joy Division was a precursor to the shoegaze movement while New Order could be (and often was) played in the clubs. Peter Hook’s basslines are the stuff of legend now, joydivnorder3taut but slinky, shuddering on the beats while tempting submission. Loads of synthesizers were incorporated to the mix as well, and nearly all of the dark washes accompanying the “atmosphere” sections were punctured by chipper electro-beats and chattering drums. They may have also shared similar thematic fascinations, but New Order was much brighter about it—picture Robert Smith at his most hopeful.

Side by side, it’s difficult to decide favoritism. If I wanna brood, Ian; if I wanna move, Bernard. If I wanna perk up, the dance pop; if I wanna thaw lonely, the eerie basement punk. Joy Division’s tenure was brief but they nailed consistency and never had the chance to glaze towards mediocrity; New Order is more uneven, but with the longer career comes a greater number of must-own-no-must-listen-to-it-right-now tracks. So why choose? There’s no reason not to be at least a little perilously obsessed with both.

Besides, how many groups could rebound from the devastating loss of the “face of the band” and not only manage to keep going, but do so respectively under a different name and travel in fascinating and appealing new directions?

Please, for the love of God, do not say Audioslave.

Dead Souls
Love Will Tear Us Apart
Heart and Soul
Blue Monday
Age of Consent
Love Vigilantes
Bizarre Love Triangle
Round & Round

Also endorsed: Bauhaus, Killing Joke, the Go-Betweens

[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]


Matt Medlock


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