Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Artists (#25-21)


It's the last group before the Top 20. Time to take a look at a Canadian, some Brits, and homegrown American talent.

One would think that the music press would have been paying attention to John Lennon when he released the unforgettably-titled song “Woman Is the Nigger of the World,” starkly illustrating female oppression and role restriction, but the gender divide in music still runs in quiet but obvious ways. One of those dismissive habits was the handling of a sub-genre of punk rock called “riot grrrl”; founded on women’s issues such as sexual abuse and female empowerment, but co-opted by the media as an easy description (or dismissal), as if a bunch of ladies couldn’t be “punk” sleaterkinney1without needing a new name to reference the fact that these spirited young folk playing the loud power chords and yelping purgatively have vaginas instead of the standard-issue penises. It was a term invented by ladies for the indie zine community, but now it’s a burden, an easy description for any female-fronted act with roots in punk (and even beyond—yes, there are people who’ve described No Doubt and the Spice Girls as being riot grrrl). While not remotely as offensive as—from Lennon’s bold suggestion—the idea of labeling Lenny Kravitz and Living Colour “nigger rock” (ugh, my fingers just shuddered on the keyboard), it still doesn’t make much sense to keep clustering bands in that niche based solely on sex (though to be fair, I myself have used the common expressions “blue-eyed soul” and “white reggae” to distinguish “white folks” doing “black music”). The continued existence and division of riot grrrl at least has one reasonable but illegitimate excuse—potentially, male egos were left nervous, if not flat-out terrified, when they realized that the best punk rock of the last twenty-five-plus years was being provided by a trio of (shh, don’t tell anyone) women.

I am, of course, talking about Sleater-Kinney, three feisty femmes (ahem, I mean people) from Olympia, WA with vigor, attitude, brashness and specialized politics—the sort of thing the music world always needs. They didn’t start out as the best damn punk around; in fact, they weren’t noticeably more spectacular than fellow so-called “riot grrrl” types Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17, the latter two having provided S-K’s frontwomen (ahem, I mean frontpeople), Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein. Third member Lora Macfarlane was a reliable sleaterkinney2drummer, but it wasn’t really until their third album with the addition of new skins technician Janet Weiss that the group really took off.

The frenetic twin guitar attacks of Tucker and Brownstein usually get recognized first within their excitable appeal (and rightly so), but don’t sleep on the importance of Weiss’ contributions. The bass drum hit like a ton of bricks when she came aboard, and her tom cracks were nearly as thunder-fisted as John Bonham on his best days. They became both more precise and more powerful the moment she came on, but it certainly helped her case that she debuted on Dig Me Out, featuring the best batch of songs they had yet written. The other instantly recognizable feature of the group was Tucker’s abrasive, emotional warble inflated to a huge banshee wail, which had to be a giant force of nature to stay above those jagged, tensely coiled guitars and flattening beats.

And if they had just been a vigorous, take-no-shit post-punk band, that would’ve been all well and good, but they wouldn’t have been nearly as complete. They were also introducing calmer and more thoughtful passages into their work that somehow felt entirely congruous with their hard rock blitzes. The majority of The Hot Rock reveals mature examination—it may lack the frantic immediacy and breathless catharsis of Dig Me Out and Call the Doctor, but it ensured they would never settle for becoming predictable (or settling in any fashion whatsoever, for that matter). And from All Hands on the Bad One, “The Swimmers”’ low-key psych-blues guitar figure is gentle, sleaterkinney3longing, watery, and “Leave You Behind” features a lovely, warmly appealing melody (and hinted at the direction Tucker would take on her own ten years later). And when it seemed impossible for them to top the nearly flawless top-to-bottom One Beat, they made a break for it deep into The Woods, a dense, furrowing interpretation of thunderous classic rock in the vein of Blue Cheer and Led Zeppelin filtered through their ferocious modern edge. It’s still painful for me that they split after that album; the potential seemed limitless for them after that sharp turn.

Being on a various indie labels their entire tenure (Kill Rock Stars, Sub Pop, Chainsaw) prevented Sleater-Kinney from ever being a mainstream force, though they sold well for the underground. Better than that, though, they’ve been acclaimed by critics since the beginning, with numerous music mag writers hailing them as one of the best rock bands of their time (if not the best). Even if someone can’t get down with their feminist politics—and they went far beyond that anyhow, also touching on interpersonal issues, matured diary concerns, disenfranchisement, and the post-9/11 landscape—one would have to be in a coma to not be driven to shake and snap to the thrill of their stomping synergy.

Don’t Think You Wanna
I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone
Dig Me Out
One More Hour
The Drama You’ve Been Craving
Little Babies
Burn Don’t Freeze
Get Up
All Hands on the Bad One
You’re No Rock & Roll Fun
#1 Must Have
Leave You Behind
Light Rail Coyote
What’s Mine Is Yours

Also endorsed: Bikini Kill, Throwing Muses, the Slits

steviewonder1Just prior to the release of his masterpiece Innervisions, Stevie Wonder assembled a group of journalists, blindfolded them, and drove them around the city in a bus. He did this so that they could all experience the world as he “saw” it. Shortly after, still blindfolded, they listened to the album on playback for the very first time in order to hear it and feel it the way he did. Having virtually memorized the record front-to-back, I don’t have the benefit of such an intriguing experiment. While the sense of hearing would no doubt play the largest role, especially on that first run through, I also suspect some of the most vivid sounds and words would be teeming with the scents of urban life, right down in the streets, rich but mired in decay.

Less than a week after the album’s release, Wonder was in a near-fatal car accident that left him in a coma for four days; the trauma caused him to lose his sense of smell. Odiferous memory would always remain, of course, the way that sight would forever elude him, but that absence of present aroma did not affect him. His follow-up, Fulfinningness’ First Finale, was considerably brighter and more upbeat than the last, evidence that no tragedy would destroy his optimism; this consideration is further amplified by Songs in the Key of Life two years later, a double LP bursting with steviewonder3redeeming variety, largely celebratory, warm and witty. Stevie Wonder was that sort of man; the idiom “you can’t keep a good man down” feels like it was written about him.

The image of him behind the keyboard is always with his head shaking and swaying to the smooth or funky rhythm, a huge smile pasted on his face. The smile was almost as beautiful as his heart, and even at his most deliberate or even outright accusatory, it was always at the service of some greater, kinder purpose. He seemed incapable of naked fury, but he could be blue, and feeling that disappointment enlivened his other emotions like the absence of sight (and later smell) must have enhanced his other senses—that he was able to feel such pain made him understand how human he was, how much he loved and cared, and that deepened his spirit to the point where he would be able to smile again.

He began, of course, as “Little” Stevie Wonder, Motown’s young singing prodigy who scored his first #1 hit when he was just twelve years old. His career in the 60s as a singles artist didn’t seem destined for great longevity—great as some of those tunes were, was anyone really expecting longevity from a teenager who only managed filler-heavy long players and one or two hits a year? But even at a young age, he was already co-writing some of his own songs, and as “Little” Stevie transformed into “Big” Stevie, a wealth of musical knowledge and ambition was revealed. At the start of the 70s, he would transition from a singles artist to an album artist (who still managed to steviewonder2score plenty of hit singles), and become a master of soul, funk, R&B, pop and rock—arguably the greatest black artist of the 70s. I don’t even know why I qualified that with “arguably”; I can’t think of a reasonable argument myself.

And if not the entire decade, then certainly that run from Music of My Mind to Songs in the Key of Life, his so-called “classic period” where everything he did was at an incredibly high level. Even his ballads during that time, always Stevie’s “weakest strength,” were frequently at a high caliber. Look at some of the grisly treacle that courses through iffy hits like “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and “That’s What Friends Are For.” But saying anything even tenuously negative about his career feels more than a little heartless (and I’m a critic, so I’m already extraordinarily heartless). Even his most scathing criticisms would be greeted by that brilliant smile of his. He’s far too generous to linger on such disapproval; heck, any superstar willing to perform with the Jonas Brothers for a venue like the Grammy telecast must be one of the most generous people alive.

Uptight (Everything’s Alright)
I Was Made to Love Her
Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours
Seems So Long
I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)
Living for the City
Higher Ground
You Haven’t Done Nothin’
Sir Duke
Master Blaster (Jammin’)
Jungle Fever

Also endorsed: Bill Withers, Nile Rogers, Hall & Oates

“Throughout his self-described ‘bumpy ride,’ Young has consistently demonstrated the unbridled passion of an artist who understands that self-renewal is the only way to avoid burning out. For this reason, he has remained one of the most significant artists of the rock and roll era.”
--excerpt from Neil Young’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame profile

neilyoung1If James Brown is the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, then Neil Young must be the Busiest Man in Show Business. The dude’s in his sixties now and just keeps right on going. He doesn’t stop and never has. Whether with Buffalo Springfield, Crazy Horse, CSNY, the Mynah Birds, Pearl Jam, the Stray Gators, Phish, Stills-Young, the Ducks, the Squires or just solo, he’s a non-stop rock machine. He has more unreleased albums than most bands could ever release over long and storied careers. He’s not just a musician and performer—he’s also a director, an activist, a writer, an organizer, an archivist, an environmentalist. As a child he was diagnosed with both polio and diabetes; maybe that just made him feel a need to work harder and work more than any other man he knew.

And it’s not like he just keeps going out and churning out the same tired shit either. How odd is it that he has not one but two signature styles—folksy acoustic country rock and heavy electric guitar crunch—but there’s virtually no type of music he’s never at least dabbled in? He’s been named the Godfather of Grunge, experimented with electronic music, did records heavily indebted to swing and rockabilly, paid tribute to jazz, rolled with funk, punched up new wave, recorded a thirty-five minute “compilation compositor” album of feedback and noise fragments, and rocked a vocoder. neilyoung2He’s not just wandering around with a detached sense of curiosity, either—he’s been honest, carried by his own wind. If he feels like doing something, he does it. If not, he’s not going to force something just to drum up attention from his fanbase or critics.

The stuff of his I gravitate towards most strongly is the work from Freedom to Broken Arrow (minus that “compilation compositor” called Arc) and just about anything he did in the late-60s and throughout the 70s. Especially with Crazy Horse—he’s really never sounded more alive than with those guys, where rhythm and groove is so essential to amplifying his guitar glories. Records like On the Beach and Tonight’s the Night are so good because they’re so stark, despairing and raw, confrontational without being conventionally insistent, and they lack hits and concert staples. Then there’s something like Zuma, which is just top-to-bottom great, especially “Lookin’ for a Love.” And he can do a country rock album full of hits like Harvest, his all-time best seller with iconic hits like “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man.” Meanwhile, that metallic-edged heavy guitar sound he got for Ragged Glory, “Hey Hey, My My,” and the immortal “Cinammon Girl” is just as beautiful as his lightest, warmest melodies.

neilyoung3But it would be almost condescending to simply relate to his most powerful phases. What about the virtual rock opera that was Greendale? The much loathed concert film Year of the Horse from Jim Jarmusch of Neil & Crazy Horse? The divisive Pearl Jam collaboration, maligned by many but enjoyed thoroughly by myself? Virtually everything he did in the 80s, which was mostly “decent enough,” but lacking the obvious political fire that should have been burning during the Reagan years? Or Living with War, which was fine for a few months but dated so quickly that by the time Bush bid farewell, it felt completely irrelevant even with the wars still churning onward? Wait, I think I found something even more condescending—expecting Neil Young to bow to the wishes of the public. Magnificent, lumbering, or anything in between, he’s the rare artist who’s only himself, always true even when indeliberate, always in the moment, always working, working, working.

For What It’s Worth [Buffalo Springfield]
Cinnamon Girl
Down by the River
Ohio [Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young]
Southern Man
The Needle and the Damage Done
Revolution Blues
Tonight’s the Night
Lookin’ for a Love
Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)
Rockin’ in the Free World
Harvest Moon
Song X

Also endorsed: The Byrds, Teenage Fanclub, the Lemonheads

“It’s a natural response to elevate such talents, especially in the wake of sudden, tragic deaths” 
--Myself, when discussing John Lennon on this list

And then I promised another obvious example would be coming in a couple of days. Well, here he is, ladies and gentlemen, the King of Pop—Michael Jackson. Talk about someone who gave the world his best, his worst, and everything in between. It seems like his entire life—or at least from the moment he became a star at the age of eleven with the Jackson 5—has been spent in front of a camera. You could do a three hour uninterrupted television special celebrating his greatest michaeljackson1moments and most exhilarating achievements and questioning his biggest blunders and most puzzling decisions and still barely skim the surface. At his best he was an engaging pop star, a fine singer, an entertainer, an institution. Later in his career he became a spectacle, a tabloid fixture, the center of a media circus, a punchline. I don’t care what anyone says about Usher or Justin Timberlake or anyone else; there will never be another like Michael Jackson, and it’s a sacrilege to suggest otherwise.

I can recall as a young child putting my parents’ Bad vinyl into the record player and dancing, jumping, slamming around the room with my brother. We usually couldn’t get past the first song before the record started skipping violently. Jackson’s best records had incredible hooks in them, ones that were daring and sophisticated, but so clear and simple enough that kids would be able to utilize it as a means to release boundless energy. He and Quincy Jones together were some kind of brilliant match made in heaven—Jackson’s youthful confidence and ambition fit perfectly within the context of Jones’ masterful touch and wisdom. Although he’d been in show business for a decade beforehand, it’s still shocking to think that he was only twenty when he recorded Off the Wall—even with Jones’ guidance, it seems impossible that someone that young could be so limitless but polished. It’s like he was a kid in a candy store, only that kid happened to be named William Wonka and he was ready to start making his own sticky treats that would make the rest of them taste gritty and bland.

michaeljackson2Thriller isn’t the greatest album of all-time (of that I have no doubt), nor is it the most important or even most famous (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band gets that honor) but it is the biggest ever made. I was too young to really remember the fame-storm that followed Jackson during its aftermath but I don’t think reasonable exaggeration is possible. In pop music during the 80s there was Michael Jackson and then there was everyone else. His golden years were so larger-than-life, in fact, that they made his early days as a little kid with the Jackson 5 seem like a rehearsal, a youth goofin’ around, or something resembling novelty entertainment—and it is not easy to make “I Want You Back” and “I’ll Be There” sound slight and second-rate. That he couldn’t smoothly transition into an adult performer during his rocky mid-70s run is appropriate—even superstars can’t possibly go from boy to man smoothly. But even after a career comeback with his popular and commended Off the Wall album, no one could have predicted what was going to happen in a few more years.

Jackson was clearly a bizarre individual, but because he was so scrutinized by the media and hounded by fans, everything he did was a public act—he lacked the solace of privacy. Growing up without a real childhood clearly did some damage on his psyche (the ratio seems slanted towards major child stars that are troubled and socially unstable over those who are normal and well-adjusted) and that sort of thing amplifies personal eccentricities to outlandish, bordering-on-insane stunts. It’s easy to focus on the outrageous antics because they were, well, just so outrageous (and possibly criminal), but none of that overrides the fact that he was one of the most talented and electrifying performers to ever live. It would be like dismissing all of Roman Polanski’s masterful films simply because of his disquieting indiscretions—and with MJ, it’s all gossip and allegations, not established fact.

The only legitimate knock against Jackson as an artist (and the only reason why he didn’t sneak into the Top 20 where most would insist he belongs) is his consistency. While deserving of vast michaeljackson3acclaim, I’ve withheld enthusiastically unbound praise for his best albums (Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad) because amidst all of those huge smashes (and smaller hits—yeah, he actually did have “smaller” hits) is undeniable filler and dreck; which wouldn’t be that upsetting if he was more prolific when it came to releasing new music, but after becoming an adult, it was usually four, five, or more years waiting for his next album, with just an odd collaboration or soundtrack tune here and there to sate the public’s thirst. And nearly everything he released after his 80s heyday was of marginal quality, even his chart toppers “Black or White” and “You Are Not Alone.”

But he’s still an irrefutable musical genius, with a style all his own that’s endlessly copied, homaged and lampooned. He was usually so gentle and soft-spoken as a public figure offstage that it was difficult to fathom the alteration required to becoming the candid, vigorous performer he was onstage. That routine he delivered of “Billie Jean” on the Motown 25 special is one of the most singularly brilliant acts of entertainment I’ve ever witnessed. His dancing is the stuff of legend, of course—many think he’s the best dancer in pop music history, and it’s a hard claim to argue. He made music videos a true art form, even capturing the sensory collaboration of music and image in ambitious, dizzying short films; there will never be a more famous video than the one he did for “Thriller.” Never. And his songs, the great ones—and you all know which ones I’m talking about—almost transcend “music”; they’re so ingrained into the world around us that they take on an almost mythical quality. Very few artists have ever been able to pull off something like that, let alone the numerous times that Jackson has done so.

I Want You Back [Jackson 5]
I’ll Be There [Jackson 5]
Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough
Rock with You
Off the Wall
Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’
Beat It
Billie Jean
P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)
The Way You Make Me Feel
Smooth Criminal

Also endorsed: George Michael, the Bee Gees, Justin Timberlake

The first wave of punk was, naturally, the best the genre had to offer. The Ramones feeding the Brits, you know, and just blossoming from there (nah, too flowery for these snotty little bastards; let’s go with “smearing”). It’s okay that the field never properly recovered from that hit-and-run strafing attack—it inspired all sorts of new sounds that dominated most of the best rock music of clash1the last thirty years (post-punk, new wave, hardcore, grunge, dance punk, etc.). So I can only insist that it’s reasonable that the greatest of all of those “first-wavers” should be the one that most emphasized how diverse the aggressively singular style could actually be. There’s no doubt that such a title could only belong to the Clash.

The Clash were billed in their label’s advertising campaign as “The Only Band That Matters”—a bold statement even by typically bold PR statements. But during the Clash’s peak years, it was a very easy proclamation to believe, and was quickly adopted by the group’s ardent fanbase. They weren’t just a bunch of bratty youths with a lot of fury, attitude and energy; they actually had brains to back up their brashness, anxious diversity in the noise, and messages to compete with their atomic sound. There were plenty of louder, heavier and faster punk bands than the Clash, but most of it seemed so slight and empty in comparison. While Johnny Rotten was sneering in favor of “no future” anarchy and getting “pissed, destroy,” Joe Strummer was crying out in favor of leftist politics and social upheaval that brought about change and improvement, not chaos. There’s room for both schools of thought, and both strike different but equally sensitive nerves, but which one was the more effective call to arms?

clash2That Mick Jones and Strummer didn’t subscribe to the ideals of nihilism and sitting around wishing for sedation and some glue to sniff made them worthier of fascination. It’s hard not to get stirred by their music, if not even to point of “getting all riled up.” I’ve seen video of them walking towards the stage to perform, clad in outfits that almost resembled paramilitary nationalists, fierce resolve burning in their eyes—if Public Enemy’s Professor Griff wasn’t at least partially inspired by those images (in addition to the Black Panthers) for his design of the Security of the First World, I’d be stunned by the uncanny similarities in both image and tactic. And once they got on stage, the crowd was theirs to command and control, following every jerking thump and clanging chord. The riffs came fast and furious, but were versatile enough to allow plenty of shades. Meanwhile, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon/Terry Chimes made up arguably the best backbeat of the first wave: visceral in all the right places, dynamic in all the right ways.

They launched onto the scene with several shatteringly good early singles (“White Riot,” “Complete Control”) and a dynamite debut LP. Strummer’s heavily accented, grunted yelp was strangely animal and adolescent, concealing the artistry of his vocal and the intelligence behind it. Even if you don’t agree with the Clash’s eminence among their peers, there’s simply no denying they weren’t the sharpest lyricists of the bunch. They detail movements, tell stories, describe the “air in the streets,” teach history, tear down consumerism and corporatization; all fiercely stubborn, and poetic so long as rhetoric sounds like sonnets in your fried brainpan. And the music around it is perfectly attuned—they played hard and sloppy, always on the brink of collapse, but with force that was almost righteous, and through jumpy, hooky melodies that stick in the head for a long time. And talk about innovation and ambition: they were the first to successfully combine reggae with clash3garage rock (“(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”), the first to record a hip hop song that would leap onto the charts (“The Magnificent Seven”), rivaled Elvis Costello’s implementation of fusing old-style pub rock with the urgency of punk, tricked out their songs with dub, roots, gospel, ska and more, and were about the only group ever to try something like Sandanista!—a triple LP at an affordable price stuffed with just about every conceivable sound available that was even remotely close to rock n’ roll’s orbit (and a few well beyond). But if you like your stylistic free-for-alls more consistent and time-manageable, there was London Calling.

If the Clash hadn’t bothered with their early explosive stuff and their later ambitious stuff and only had time to release London Calling as a one-n’-done before breaking to pieces, they’d still be hovering at the top of punk’s anti-royalty list. It hasn’t aged a day since it came out at the very end of the ‘Me’ Decade, and perhaps my memory fogs up too much between visits, but I swear the album actually gets better every time I listen to it. There’s nothing to say about it that hasn’t already been said before—it’s simply the best punk album of all time and it’s inconceivable that it shall ever be topped. To get a quick understanding of the strides their rebellious posture had taken from their excellent debut (and past the oft-underappreciated Give ‘Em Enough Rope sophomore LP) to that all-time great, consider that Strummer and Jones wrote a song called “London’s Burning” and then two years later wrote a song called “London Calling.” I never would have thought that punk could handle this sort of thing, but shit, man, that’s progress.

White Riot
Complete Control
I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.
(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais
I Fought the Law
Janie Jones
Safe European Home
Tommy Gun
London Calling
Brand New Cadillac
Rudie Can’t Fail
Spanish Bombs
Lost in the Supermarket
Train in Vain
The Magnificent Seven
Ivan Meets G.I. Joe
Somebody Got Murdered
Should I Stay or Should I Go
Rock the Casbah

Also endorsed: The English Beat, Social Distortion, the Mekons

[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]


Matt Medlock


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