I remember when rock was young…or perhaps, not quite so young, watching VH1 when I was in high school, in the midst of those halcyon days when VH1 actually aired programming pertinent to vintage rock and roll. In this belle époque, free from Flavor of Love, and Megan Wants a Millionaire, VH1 aired its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of Rock and Roll. I watched transfixed, and it introduced me to a number of interesting musicians in the pantheon, including Crosby Stills & Nash, David Bowie, and many others. I recently found out, via sporcle of all things, that VH1 released a new list of the top 100 last year, and included a number of new artists to that list who either weren’t around in 1998, or whose legacies were still very much up for grabs. My primordial nemesis, Rolling Stone magazine, approached a similar task in recent years, selecting 100 “Immortals” of rock and roll.
Not one to let a ranking of any sort go unanswered, I am attempting here my own list of the 100 Greatest Rock and Roll Artists. I write this knowing that no such list is completely objective, and that my knowledge of both the artists included here and those left off is imperfect and incomplete. There’s a lot of great music to which I am unfamiliar. This is a list reflective of my time and my biases, as someone enamored of 60s pop and 70s AM-radio hits who zoned out during much of the music that was popular during his adolescence. But here is my criteria:
- Body of work– This includes not only the quality, but to an extent, the breadth of what the artist accomplished. Were they able to sustain success for a reasonable period of time, and if not, is there a very good excuse for why they didn’t?
- Endurance– Is their work still listenable today for reasons beyond its nostalgia value?
- Influence on the development of rock– this is a touchy category, to be sure, and it is used badly by many to further their favorite choices when they did not achieve commercial success. But are they, at the very least, not an artistic dead end?
- Commercial Success– this is not used by many rankings, but I think it is somewhat pertinent here. If the record-buying public bought droves of Chicago and ABBA records (two groups hated by critics), this ought to be taken into account in tandem with other factors- nobody can judge music quite like the people who bought records when it first came out.
Okay, got all that? Given the nature of the criteria, my list is short on “critics’ pets” (so no Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman, or Velvet Underground), historically significant-but-unlistenable outfits (so no Sex Pistols), and groups with small, but fanatical and irritating cadres of fans (KISS, the Smiths, and especially Rush). Instead, there’s a lot of groups here not on the VH1 and Rolling Stone lists that have fallen through the cracks with the passage of time and are not highly regarded by the astoundingly small and endogomous clique that usually makes these lists– hence the inclusion of America, Lionel Richie, Hall and Oates, Doobie Brothers, and others along those lines. Finally, my definition of rock and roll is generous and liberal, but it is not elastic without bounds. 70’s soul, British pop, rockabilly, and Top 40 songs with R&B influences deserve consideration. Outright county, blues, jazz, and rap fall outside this schema– so apologies to fans of Run DMC, Eminem, Hank Williams, Albert King, Miles Davis, and Robert Johnson, meritorious though they are.
100. Don McLean: I’ll admit it– he doesn’t quite achieve longevity, and if it weren’t for “Vincent”, he would have been a one-hit wonder. Yet, writing the seminal “American Pie”– the cornerstone of the rock and roll mythos, ensures him a place here. By the way, don’t neglect the rest of his catalog, which has some very fine work from the 1970s singer-songwriter genre.
99. Alanis Morissette: Back in 1995, you could not turn on the radio for 15 minutes without hearing something from Jagged Little Pill. An angsty response to Pearl Jam, Beck, and similar bands, she had a foot in the alternative world while still holding her own on Top 40 radio. And, of course, I’ll never get over the fact that “You Oughtta Know” was written for Full House’s Uncle Joey- David Coulier.
98. Carl Perkins: On the list of artists that inspired The Beatles, Carl probably ranks only behind Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly. Perkins deserves a great deal of credit for almost singlehandedly inventing the genre of rockabilly, and creating space where the country-and-western and rock and roll worlds could intersect. He most famously wrote “Blue Suede Shoes”- but consider the rest of his rich catalog, evocative of his backwoods upbringing: “Sure to Fall (In Love With You)”, “Lend Me Your Comb”, and “Movie Magg.”
97. The Ronettes: The accolades should go not so much to the Ronettes (although their lead vocalist, Veronica Bennett, was quite capable), but to their producer, Phil Spector. Now, if you have heard only a quarter of what I have heard about Phil Spector (and I have heard very little of all there is to tell), you would be prepared for any outrageous anecdote, and any indication of sociopathic behavior. But despite his mercurial nature and probable inclination toward homicide, Spector was a producer for the ages, creating a rich multi-layered sound that pushed the limits of what rock and roll could achieve sonically. And with the Ronettes’ come-hither voices, particularly in “Be My Baby” and their Christmas records, Spector achieved this to its greatest effect.
96. TLC: Few outfits brought hip-hop to the masses quite so persuasively as TLC. A product of the genre’s proliferation of the early 90s, TLC achieved its most prolific success in the mid-90s, with the release of CrazySexyCool, an album that spawned “Waterfalls” (which I am almost certain was ripped off from a 1980 Paul McCartney song, but that’s another story entirely), “Creep”, and the so-dirty-I-cannot-believe-it-got-on-the-radio “Red Light Special.” Their subsequent work was interesting, but didn’t quite achieve that level, but for a good long while, these three distinct personalities were the ones to beat for any aspiring young artists. I remember returning home from a semester in London in May of 2002, and heard about Left-Eye’s death on the front page of the British newspapers– a testament to how global this group’s reach had become.
95. Coldplay: Hmm..this list is a bit weighted toward recent-y guys so far, isn’t it? Well, Coldplay continues to perform at some of the highest levels, although it is becoming increasingly clear that they peaked with “Viva La Vida”, Coldplay has used their music to explore the depth of human emotion. It is no coincidence that Brian Eno, a pioneer in ambient music, has been their producer. The emphasis is on mood, rather than melody– not that this band has been lacking in lyrical or melodic prowess.
94. Supertramp: Seriously? I put Supertramp on here? Let me check my list here…(furious rustling of paper)…hmm…this is what happens when I rank thinks after drinking a hot toddy. So, let me think of a rationale, here: Supertramp, particularly its frontman and keyboardist Roger Hodgson, made thought-provoking but radio-friendly hits during the often dark days of the late 1970s. “The Logical Song,” for example, won the Ivor Novello award for the best music and lyrics in 1979. But the entire Breakfast in America album is remarkable in celebrating and critiquing Americana at the same time- witness “Take the Long Way Home” and the title track. This is also, incidentally, the last non-Kenny G. group to use the soprano saxophone regularly while still expecting to be taken seriously.
93. Procol Harum: It stretches imagination and memory to understand what an epochal track “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was in 1967, even by the high standards of that revolutionary year. It inaugurated a whole generation of tracks that borrowed heavily from classical influences and demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of music theory. Even more to the point, it set the tone for a lot of the psychedelic rock that came after, using church organs and harpsichords to evoke a foggy sense of mysticism and otherworldliness. By the way, there’s plenty of other great tracks they did: put “Salad Days”, “A Salty Dog” and “Conquistador” on the turntable sometime.
92. Weezer: They started out as an intriguing alternative band with songs like “Buddy Holly”, and remained relevant longer than anyone thought they would– as one commentator put it, the Weezer of the new millennium ended up being Weezer.
91. Paul McCartney & Wings: McCartney’s solo career doesn’t get nearly the respect it deserves. Lennon and Harrison gain praise because their records most approach the singer-songwriter medium, while McCartney tended toward over-produced hits and, in his own words, “silly love songs.” But, to quote Paul once more, what’s wrong with that? You would be hard pressed to name anyone who produced good songs from 1970 to 1985 more consistently than McCartney, and Band on the Run never gets its due as perhaps the decade’s most listenable album. While the Wings cohered as a unit, McCartney also pioneered the one-man-in-a-studio-going-troppo-and-doing-everything feel that people like Sufjan Stevens would eventually follow- if you don’t believe me, go listen to McCartney and especially Flaming Pie. Compare their solo output, and I think you will see that Lennon needed McCartney’s melodic instincts far more than McCartney needed Lennon’s iconoclasm.
90. Doobie Brothers: They aren’t within sniffing (toking?) distance of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but the Doobies contributed a great deal to the 1970s, and were one of the few bands whose output was equally at home on commercial AM stations as it was on “serious” rock FM stations. One of the few bands to actually have eras, you can enjoy the early records, characterized by “China Grove”, “Long Train Runnin'” and “Listen to the Music” as you can with the Michael McDonald era (“Takin’ it to the Streets”, “What a Fool Believes.”) They might be the only multi-racial group on this list as well. I’ll have to check.
89. America: Another fantastic, fantastic group that has never gotten its due. America is, in my own judgment, the only band that surpasses The Beatles in its ratio of good material to crap. One of my informal criteria for this list is “who has a greatest hits album I could listen to all the way through”? America fills this spot easily- with “A Horse with no Name”, “Don’t Cross the River”, “Ventura Highway”, and my favorite song from my favorite decade, “Sister Golden Hair.” Blessed with three great songwriters- born-again Christian Dan Peek, John Denver-ish Gerry Buckley, and Neil Young soundalike Dewey Bunnell, there was no shortage of great material.
88. The Spinners: The 1970s Philadelphia sound was a wonder to behold- a funkified combination of rich vocals, punchy horn sections and inspired soul that dominated airwaves. One of the great artists in this field was the Spinners, who racked up a string of hits with a number of different vocalists, and their harmonies were complemented by their dance moves. Go ahead- listen to “Rubber Band Man” and “Could it be I’m Falling in Love” and tell me they don’t belong here.
87. The Hollies: How easy it is to forget that the Hollies were, by most measures, the 4th best group from the initial wave of the British Invasion. While not as innovative as their superiors in the Beatles, the Stones, and the Kinks, they also knew and worked within their limits, with little studio experimentation, and thus few wanton artistic misfires. While the early hits like “Carrie Anne” and “Bus Stop” are pleasant enough ear candy, they evolved into a talented group of songwriters that created some of the most ambient songs of their era- the murky “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” and the John Donne-ish “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”.
86. Billy Joel: As he recovers from another nasty divorce and a stinging but mostly truthful Slate article eviscerating his music, Joel is an enigma. One of the most talented melody writers of the 20th century, how does one reconcile his talent with the smarmy, self-congratulating, faux-authentic, patronizing and not infrequently misogynistic material in his lyrics. And that’s before you consider the bad sci fi (“Miami 2071”) the emotional manipulation that insults his listeners intelligence (“Leningrad”) or his need to out-Springsteen Springsteen and write panegyrics to the working joe (“Allentown”, “Downeaster Alexa”). But look at what happens when Joel drops his pretension, his brazen quest for Long Island authenticity, and his delusions of adequacy- under the right conditions, Joel can produce one of the most touching ballads ever written (“And So It Goes”), or some delightful doo-wop throwbacks (“Keeping the Faith”, “The Longest Time.”)
85. Peter, Paul & Mary: Speaking of authenticity, here’s the real McCoy. (Sadly, the Real McCoy did not make this list. If they had, I would face a public shaming, a mass-unfriending on facebook and very probably a broken engagement.) Born amidst the folk music bars of Greenwich Village, Peter, Paul & Mary took that scene and tempered it of its excesses. (Tom Lehrer once pointed out that folk musicians are the types of people who think singing 50 verses of “On Top of Old Smoky” is twice as enjoyable as singing 25.) I become distracted- PP&M added some sugar to the medicinal of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger’s reedy voices and made their work palatable for mass consumption. Lots of people remember “Blowing in the Wind”, but give “When the Ship Comes In” a try. But if folk music is about affecting and inspiring change and of bringing awareness to the crisis of our times, they not only sang about it, they lived it out, marching in Selma, performing at the March on Washington, and remaining a fixture on PBS. As one of their song asks: “have you been to jail for justice?” Maybe they haven’t (and at any rate, Peter Yarrow actually did go to jail, albeit for the wrong reasons), but in every way they lived out the change their music bespoke.
84. Santana: Let’s forget about the money-grabbing 90s collaborations, and remember Santana for its spooky, evocative tracks and ethereal guitar solos from the late 1960s and early 1970s. It touched a chord with its somewhat improvisational style and cool sonic effects. At the same time, Santana is also responsible for one of the elements of 1970s music that I find most troubling- the close association of women and evil. (You can see traces of this in, well, “Evil Woman”, “Some Girls” by the Rolling Stones, and every Eagles song ever written.) (By the way, you caught me, I don’t know very much about Santana.)
83. The Bee Gees: I am going to catch all kinds of flak from Mr. Stanley and a few other steady readers for this pick. Let me make my case: disco has gotten a bad rap for entirely the wrong reasons. Disco isn’t any more insipid than anything else that was on the radio during the late 1970s, and it was a fascinating mix of Philadelphia soul, and dance-friendly white pop (think K.C. and the Sunshine Band)- and culturally, an endlessly fascinating intersection of Afrocentric, Hollywood, and New York’s Erotic City cultures. But how do the Bee Gees fit into this? They link up the British Invasion to this phenomenon, and add the exceptional close harmonies that it seems only kinfolk can create. Their early material was ambitious and adventurous (“New York Mining Disaster”, “I’ve Got to Get a Message to You”), before the Saturday Night Fever days that gave voice to the desperation (“Stayin’ Alive”) and cynicism (“Jive Talkin'”) that characterized an era that historian Alan Brinkley has called “The Age of Limits.”
82. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles: Motown’s first bankable artist, Robinson began in the doo-wop idiom (“Get a Job”) before lending his voice to some of the 1960s best soul hits- “Tears of a Clown”, “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” and “The Tracks of My Tears”. Robinson was the very voice of soul during rock and roll’s Detroit-based regency.
81. James Taylor: Singer-songwriters get all kinds of hipster credentials these days and their music holds up. Soft rock pioneers are decidedly less chic, tend to have long-lasting careers and give concerts attended by 50-year-old women named Debbie until the singer reaches extreme old age. Taylor tilts more to the latter than the former, but he maintains elements of both. His work is introspective, thoughtful and reflective, and isn’t afraid to tilt toward the sentimental when that’s what JT is feelin’ (“Shower the People”). But the Taylor canon is a warm, familiar voice- not unlike the Berkshire Mountains from which he hails- in a rock and roll world of malcontents, criminals and jackasses.