Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Artists (#1)


At long last, it's time to reveal the #1 artist of the last fifty years. I think you're all going to be very surprised. Okay, you won't be, but read on anyway?

I never claimed to be a good salesman.

beatles1Sorry about the anticlimactic predictability of this, but I really had no other choice. The greatest artist of the last fifty years is the Beatles and no reasonable argument can be made otherwise. Sure, you can prefer the style of another act more or be more devoted/obsessed with someone else or even think another group is more artistic or wrote better songs or rocked with more authority or entertained with more zest and panache. This is not about favoritism—my actual “favorite” happens to be sitting below at #2. But I couldn’t be surprising or crafty or controversial in this matter without being dishonest. And I’m sure you saw it coming, too—of course it has to be the Beatles.

If that band tucked away in the second spot, Led Zeppelin, was great for being larger than life, then the Beatles are great for, well, just being “life.” One’s an escape to fantasy and the other is a gateway to reality. Their music has become so omnipresent, been insinuated into all aspects of culture so deeply, that we can easily take them for granted. I’m not old enough to remember what the world was like before the Beatles’ music, but it seems like a harsh, alien landscape to me. I’m beginning to suspect that some part of the Beatles has now been stamped onto our DNA; I think we’re all born knowing the Abbey Road song suite by heart. You can be having a conversation with anyone about anything remotely related to entertainment and simply say the extremely common surnames “John,” “Paul” or “George” and everyone will know who you’re talking about (“Ringo,” too, but that one’s a lot easier). Some dictionaries feature “Beatlesque” as an official word; even more unnaturally, that adjective can refer to about a hundred different sensations, but the impulsive haze of understanding is always the same and always active.

beatles0And yet, some people today seem to forget about how huge and hugely important the Beatles were. No, make that are, because what they did is still being applied to modern pop with rabid intensity, and they haven’t lost even a whiff of their popularity—population increase aside, more people love them today than did back in their day. New fans are born every day—the best-selling rock band of the 00s, more than thirty years after their last original album, was the Beatles! For a group as enormously popular as they were, that’s no easy feat. No one a part of pop music’s ritualistic fanbase followed, studied, crowded, obstructed, deconstructed with even a shred of the intensity as the legions who lived and breathed just for the Beatles in the 60s. And that passion has held steady all the way to today.

Some people think that an awful lot of tween girls are going hysterical for this Justin Bieber kid; more people think that no one could have ever been bigger than Michael Jackson was in 1983-84; even more look at folks who still go to Graceland and weep hysterically for a fallen King as if he was a blood relative, and think no one will ever be more beloved. But no, none of them can even hold a candle to Beatlemania—it was the sort of pop culture phenomenon that can’t really be understood until you see coverage of them landing at JFK or watch archival footage of their 1965 concert at Shea Stadium (even then, you’re just getting a wisp, a glimpse). It’s sure fun to watch that Shea hoopla but it had to have been a terrible show—even with the recording equipment capturing the performance down on the field, you can barely hear the music over non-stop static of screams. The group would go on tour and never leave their hotel rooms because just to step beatles2outside would result in a frenzied mob. And I can’t even fault those shrieking fans: I’m an adult male, and I’d have probably screamed to the verge of fainting if I’d spotted them out and about. Especially the cute one, Paul; such dreamy eyes, oh my.

And even when the packs of rabid female fans settled a bit as the years passed on, the widespread fascination did not. They were torn to pieces after John Lennon declared that they were bigger than Jesus, but in context, he was spot on—for much of the youth, the Beatles mattered more than religion and their actions instantly turned to gospel. Whatever they did, said, wore, practiced, recorded, etc., that instantly became the cool thing for everyone else to do, both in the music community and popular society. It’s not just that the Beatles influenced the music that came after them. They were also changing it day by day—one of their singles would be released, another artist would hear it, become inspired/jealous and rush into the studio to capitalize and three weeks later, a new take on the idea or a conceptual copycat would be in stores right next to the 45 that “licensed” it. Nothing moves that fast today, which is odd because the technology would certainly allow for it. But that’s because no one today is moving as fast, as radically, as extraordinarily as the Beatles. No one else ever has, really.

And because the Beatles have become such an institution—the most famous band in popular music, bar none—far too many today simply look at them as some artifact, a museum display worth pausing to gaze at nostalgically before moving on to the next exhibit while their iPod is blasting the latest Kanye banger or Animal Collective collage into their ears. Stop sealing them in wax, stop letting their records gather dust on the shelves, stop leaving it at just gratitude for forging a brighter, better world. They were just four men (boys, really, at the outset) who wanted to be in a band and play music. I’ve long skimmed past those halcyon puppy-love-and-R&B-cover beatles4days with a gently curled smile—fun and infectious but also weightless and simple. But oh, no: it only seems weightless and simple because of all the cut-rate rip-offs that spoiled the outrageous invention for all of us. Sure, their music as the 60s progressed became even more and more sophisticated, abstract, eclectic and ambitious, but those moments came because they so thoroughly mastered crowdpleasing pop with those early singles that it was either go further or stay fenced. They made the right choice.

Beginning as a skiffle band called the Quarrymen in the late-50s, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison were just teenagers when they first started playing music together. Joined by Stu Sutcliffe and Pete Best, they changed their name to the Beatles as a tribute to Buddy Holly’s band the Crickets (originally spelled “Beatals”). Sutcliffe left the band in the early 60s to return to arts school (and died of a brain hemorrhage less than a year later) and Best, considered by manager Brian Epstein to be an inadequate drummer, was replaced by Ringo Starr (née Richard Starkey). Ringo did not play the drums on the first official Beatles single, “Love Me Do,” released in October, 1962, but he was there when the band cut their debut album in a single day session at Abbey Road Studios, The album jumped to #1 in the UK and three of their next four singles all went to the top as well (the holdout, “Please Please Me,” had to settle for #2). Beatlemania had begun, water hoses were used to control unruly crowds, Parliament argued about the risks involved in thousands of police officers being dispatched to calm the “shark-feeding frenzy,” and the Beatles set their sights on America.

beatles3The Beatles’ explosion in the US was perfectly timed. Country was in decline and folk was only starting its comeback. The early “black” rock n’ roll and R&B of the 50s was starting to peter out, thirsty for the next craze. The Motown sound was just starting to gather steam but was relegated in those early days to the R&B and soul charts. Some sunny harmony group called the Beach Boys was starting to gather steam, but that was way out on the California coast. And it was still “too soon” for the nastier rock sound of the Stones and “You Really Got Me.” So in that little sliver of time, here came these four good-looking kids with gently-rebellious, coordinated haircuts and handsomely-scuffed dress clothes rolling up tender, breezy sentiments like “Love Me Do” and “She Loves You” into supercharged bubblegum melodies that were sweet on the ears but just rough and rollicking enough to be dangerous in a naïve, early-60s kind of way. And even years later when they only made occasional live appearances in the latter part of the 60s, mostly on music, variety and talk show programs—you know, when the tensions were really starting to mount—there was always chemistry that matched the coordination in that first look. No matter what they felt about each other at whatever point of time, it always looked like they just loved to play, and that affection was infectious in front of whatever crowd they were performing.

But any group that forgoes touring for roughly half of their run clearly must be judged by their songs. They didn’t want to waste time on the road when they could be writing melodies, experimenting with diverse sounds and tones (and mind-altering, ahem, medicine), expanding boundaries and philosophies, and just trying whatever strange little diversion they liked. Be it children’s rhyme, psychedelic tape experiments, screaming proto-metal, Indian-influenced drone, chintzy dance hall, rowdy blooze rock, Victorian ballads, it didn’t matter: their throwaways are better than most groups’ studio masterpieces. And they were at their most sophisticated even when they were at their most elaborate—multi-sectional songs like “A Day in the Life,” “Happiness beatles5Is a Warm Gun” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” still stagger the mind more than forty years later, yet can be listened to even that very first time and you barely notice how unconventional the compositions are because of how seamlessly each part blends together.

Before they got to that level, first they had to make a few new friends (and get by with a little help from them). Of course, there’s Bob Dylan, Ed Sullivan, Elvis Presley, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, über-producers like “fifth Beatle” George Martin and Phil Spector, Yoko Ono, Billy Preston, and so on. But I’m really referring to a few illegal acquaintances—accomplices really. The stories are worn and faded by now about the Beatles being introduced to marijuana by Dylan and then experimenting with LSD; anyone looking for correlation to the widely speculated theory that, “sure, drug use can destroy lives, but it also induces great art, man,” can find it with the Beatles. But that just made them go further than they might have otherwise, introducing them to different cultures and sounds—anyone paying attention to their early records knew that the Lennon/McCartney combo would be scaling towering heights even without chemical encouragement. It was both a partnership and a competition, the makeup of any great duo. With all the not-so-private wars being amiably waged between the Beatles and numerous 60s rock groups like the Beach Boys, Rolling Stones, the Byrds and more, the greatest war was being fought between John and Paul. But whether in the friendly trade-off days early on or the vindictive one-up days during the later years, they always shared a mutual if sometimes grudging respect, and inspired each other to keep going until the metaphorical ceiling was reduced to smoke and mirrors.

The songs would usually begin simple—a piano melody, or a guitar line, or a verse or two and a hook, whatever. From there, more parts were added to give it a full body, sound tracks would be tinkered with, other members would make contributions either with ideas or instruments, and George Martin would make it sound great. Brian Wilson probably would have spiraled into madness/depression anyway, but during those self-destructive Smile sessions, he apparently lacked a key instinct that John and Paul had—reduction. Sometimes a song benefits from generous instrumentation and production (Spector and his Let It Be mix would insist on that premise), but some of the Beatles’ most famous and cherished songs are unusually spare and orchestrated for a rock band. “Yesterday” is just Paul with his steel-string and a string quartet, “Eleanor Rigby”s eight-piece combo of strings both velvety and knife-like recalls Bernard Hermann more than “Can’t beatles6Buy Me Love,” the affecting ballad “Julia” is so whisper-quiet that I always gotta crank the volume when it comes on, “For No One” is simply Paul, Ringo and a French horn, and it’s the best tune on an album overloaded with perfect songs. All of those tunes are just two-minutes and change and don’t sound at all like “traditional” Beatles songs, but they all rank among their all-time best (a cluttered, fighting field). And they just kept churning music out restlessly—big event single releases, bigger event full-length masterpieces, B-sides better than the A-sides. No one in the world could keep up with their pace or excellence, and certainly not both.

Discounting the Yoko-fueled abstraction enterprise “Revolution #9,” the Beatles didn’t even bother with conceptuals—they were too musical for such endeavors. Sgt. Pepper’s fictional band idea was half-formed and ultimately dropped for much of the running time, and thank goodness they did so. The Beatles told stories, sketched characters and events, sang love songs, and, yes, occasionally tripped out and just started getting freaky with the phrasing, but they needed no framing beyond the moment. Puzzling over meaning was essentially meaningless (and pissed off John); their most important message was usually right there on the surface, inviting no controversy or confusion—peace and love. Most songs of their kind are just straight ahead and vanilla propaganda; “All You Need Is Love” simply cannot be misunderstood. But then compare that to Paul’s treatise on Abbey Road: “In the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.” There’s a reason why one is considered worthy of an epitaph and the other was named the worst Beatles song by the magazine Entertainment Weekly.

beatles7As songwriters, as studio craftsman, as alchemic innovators, as restless experimenters, there’s simply no denying. That legacy is untouchable, unforgettable. But don’t sleep on the rock band basics. They were not just multitalented instrumentalists—they were genuinely adept at playing and performing, too. George is beloved and respected in every corner of the globe, but he lived and died and will forever rest in peace underrated as a guitarist (and contributing songwriter, too, especially in the messy years when he could match and even top the other two). He wasn’t unwinding extended solos and letting his instrument howl for him—his figures were interwoven into the songs, and they don’t crow cockily, they shimmer. And speaking of underrated, when asked if Ringo was the best drummer in rock, John quipped, “He’s not even the best drummer in the band!” but that’s just John being John; in actuality, Ringo was a very good percussionist, devised some remarkable, instinctive drum fills, and brought good, goofy humor to the group (anyone who devises a stage name like Ringo Starr must have personality), which was especially beneficial when the cracks began surfacing. John and Paul, meanwhile, are simply two of the best singers in pop history—distinctive, melodic, willful and real.

It is simply confounding today recognizing both the quantity and quality of their work in such a short time. When the Beatles called it a day, they were all between the ages of 27 and 29. I turn thirty in a few months; damn, I’ve wasted my life. They shame me and I’m not even trying to do what they did; imagine how shameful other musicians felt. Think about how hard most of them struggled over an entire lifetime to write just one song half as good as a Beatles number conceived on, say, some day in January, recorded a week later, and stuck in stores by mid-February, by which point they had two more equally magnificent singles ready to go right after one more final studio touch (...there, got it, okay—what’s next?). Behind drugs and broken hearts, the Beatles should rank about third in the leading causes of musician depression. But they don’t inspire jealousy and beatles8frustration. If anything, they’ve become the great equalizer—if pressed for inspiration or stuck in writer’s block, just rip off the Beatles. Great bands have been doing it all my life and even before that; blatantly, shamelessly, by admission. They were getting ripped off the very next day after one of their songs would first be played. You don’t even think in those terms now. It’s a sound that has become indelibly classic. And so we take the Beatles for granted. We pass right by the exhibit without giving more than a curt, “Thanks, guys.” But whenever I listen to them, when I really pay attention, when I let the music absorb me like a really good book, when I savor it like a really good meal, I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Over and over and over again. When you find music that does that, you know you’re listening to a great artist. In this case, the greatest.

In closing, Paul McCartney described the Beatles as being “a nice, little rock band, nothing more, nothing less”—either the worst case of false modesty I’ve ever heard or a delusion so far flung that someone should probably be following him around with a butterfly net just in case.

Please Please Me
Twist and Shout
I Want to Hold Your Hand
A Hard Day’s Night
You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away
Ticket to Ride
We Can Work It Out
Yes It Is
Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)
In My Life
Strawberry Fields Forever
Penny Lane
With a Little Help from My Friends
Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!
A Day in the Life
I Am the Walrus
Hey Jude
Come Together
Here Comes the Sun
Golden Slumbers
Carry That Weight
The End
Across the Universe
Let It Be
…and the albums Revolver and The Beatles [The White Album]

Also endorsed: Any and every good artist of the last 50 years I’ve failed to mention up to this point; “You’re welcome,” say the Beatles

And so ends Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Artists. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. And as a final, admittedly paltry gift, here’s a quick look reference for the list in its entirety so you can gush and seethe repeatedly in rapid succession (links follow). Oh, and, obviously, SPOILER ALERT if you’re not finishing up right now.

1. The Beatles
2. Led Zeppelin
3. David Bowie
4. The Who
5. The Kinks
6. The Velvet Underground
7. Radiohead
8. The Rolling Stones
9. Prince
10. Pixies
11. Bob Dylan
12. Talking Heads
13. Pink Floyd
14. Pearl Jam
15. The Beach Boys
16. Iggy & the Stooges
17. Jimi Hendrix
18. Queens of the Stone Age
19. Nirvana
20. The Cure
21. The Clash
22. Michael Jackson
23. Neil Young
24. Stevie Wonder
25. Sleater-Kinney
26. Joy Division/New Order
27. The Ramones
28. The Doors
29. Sonic Youth
30. Sly & the Family Stone
31. Bob Marley
32. Nine Inch Nails
33. The Police
34. John Lennon
35. Metallica
36. Otis Redding
37. Elvis Costello
38. U2
39. Smashing Pumpkins
40. Bruce Springsteen
41. Marvin Gaye
42. Black Sabbath
43. Lou Reed
44. Failure
45. Beastie Boys
46. Blur
47. Queen
48. R.E.M.
49. PJ Harvey
50. Pavement
51. James Brown
52. Van Morrison
53. Warren Zevon
54. Creedence Clearwater Revival
55. The Smiths
56. Aretha Franklin
57. Kraftwerk
58. Nick Drake
59. Rage Against the Machine
60. XTC
61. Cream
62. The Replacements
63. At the Drive-In
64. Nick Cave
65. Alice in Chains
66. Public Enemy
67. Buzzcocks
68. Modest Mouse
69. Tool
70. Beck
71. The Decemberists
72. The Flaming Lips
73. Elton John
74. Brian Eno
75. Super Furry Animals
76. The White Stripes
77. Wu-Tang Clan
78. Al Green
79. The Fall
80. Curtis Mayfield
81. Parliament-Funkadelic
82. OutKast
83. Paul Simon
84. Soundgarden
85. Gang of Four
86. George Harrison
87. My Bloody Valentine
88. TV on the Radio
89. Sex Pistols
90. Portishead
91. Tom Petty
92. Sam Cooke
93. Wilco
94. Rush
95. Madonna
96. Spoon
97. The Four Tops
98. Deep Purple
99. Foo Fighters
100. Guns N’ Roses

[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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