And now, the continuation of the Greatest Rock and Roll Artists.
80. Tom Petty: It is difficult to think of someone who embodies what rock and roll should have looked like in the 1980s more than Tom Petty. With sly music videos, a return-to-roots emphasis on guitar, and a voice with a detectable Southern drawl, Petty accomplished a one-generation-after version of rock that didn’t seem derivative or a throwback in any way. I need to put a good word in for his best record producer, Jeff Lynne, who managed to get Petty’s gritty sound polished to an icy sheen. (And also because Lynne is the only Traveling Wilbury not represented on this list.)
79. Dave Matthews Band: When I worked at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center many summers ago, every single year, like clockwork, we would brace ourselves for two Dave Matthews Band performances on consecutive nights, with capacity crowds and lovely and civil (though totally baked) audiences. While his days as a radio mainstay are long over, the DMB continues to crank out records and play concerts for the faithful. But more than this, DMB has created a community of fans, a subculture, that is second in the history of rock only to the Grateful Dead (with a tip of the hat to Phish), and to this effect, their concerts are constructed in such a way that one will rarely get the same show twice. With plenty of room for improvisation and a deep back catalog to draw from, the cannabis-smelling DMB devotees still come back for more, like the titular ants marching.
78. Heart: Led Zeppelin in long, black skirts, the members of Heart, led by Nancy and Ann Wilson, learned the lessons of their forebears, with mystical lyrics, blues-based guitar, and ethereal vocals. Almost certainly the best female rock singers (as opposed to country singers like Ronstandt and soul singers like Aretha), Heart’s string of late 70s hits- “Barricuda”, “Magic Man” and so on– stood on their own. Their late 80s songs descended into all kinds of problems– from recording Diane Warren songs to filming Ann Wilson from the neck up because of her weight gain– but if I can pardon Chicago and Genesis and virtually everyone else on this list for their Reagan/Bush-era transgressions, the same has to go for Heart.
77. Roy Orbison: You know how your heart flutters a bit hearing that opening guitar lick when “Oh, Pretty Woman” comes on the radio? That is Orbison’s legacy- that of a top-class guitarist who was also the first rock singer to truly use his voice as an instrument. Many of his songs employ an operatic feel that makes his records stand out among his contemporaries, in “Dream Baby” and especially “Running Scared.” Orbison’s skill, both as a songwriter and a musician, give his material something lacking from the others of his era– drama. But the drama was purely musical– Orbison performed standing ramrod straight, and would have never shaken his ass to get girls to scream at him. The Beatles originally wrote “Please Please Me” in an Orbisonian falsetto, but abandoned the idea when they realized they just couldn’t pull it off. This is a man who, in a completely meritocratic world, should have been exponentially more famous than his contemporary Elvis, because Roy was exponentially more talented.
76. Van Morrison: There is so much more to this man’s catalog than the ubiquitous “Brown Eyed Girl”. His 1960s albums were among the first to explore the mystical, as seen in “Moondance”, and the entire Astral Weeks album. With a voice so honky-tonk you would never guess that he was British, Morrison managed to write the best baritone saxophone piece in rock history (“Domino”), and pioneered the use of stream-of-consciousness lyrics in popular music.
75. Hall and Oates: You probably think I am just pulling your chain at this point, don’t you? But consider the body of evidence. They took the pop music baton during that precarious time between the death of disco and Michael Jackson and Madonna coming into their own. Like the Four Seasons (#65), they were the best show topping the charts during rock and roll’s darkest hours. In H&O’s case, they peaked during the absolute quagmire of a quadrennium between 1979 and 1983. “Kiss on my List” is probably the most infectious song I have ever heard, and set up crucial groundwork that led to “Rich Girl”, “You Make My Dreams” and “Maneater.” Are they historically significant, and did they change how rock and roll was done? No, but their body of work is strong– commercially-oriented, but authentic and consistently listenable, and that counts for a lot, especially in the early 80s.
74. Peter Gabriel: I was only an infant back then, but I can only imagine what it would have been like to watch swill like Christopher Cross on MTV, and then have Gabriel blow everybody out of the water with something like “Sledgehammer.” Gabriel is worthy of inclusion on this list for two reasons. One is for his work to make rock music a truly “world music” phenomenon, with the use of non-Western instruments and philosophies, and the other is for his work to make rock a more visual compelling medium. This is partly achieved through his music videos, to be sure, but also in his live performances, which just might include him singing “Solsbury Hill” while riding a bicycle across the stage. But consider a big hit of his like “In Your Eyes”, which is lyrically striking, while also sonically intriguing and inventive, while being pleasing to the ear. Gabriel proved, as his abandoned mates in Genesis would also discover, that the line between progressive rock and adult contemporary is gossamer-thin, far more than the devotees of either genre would dare suggest.
73. The Kinks: If The Beatles were hardwired to write songs like “Good Day Sunshine” and “With a Little Help From My Friends”, the Kinks, headlined by the Davies brothers, were destined to be the Bizzaro Beatles, exploring the shady sides of life, and the less-traveled corners of the British Invasion. If The Beatles eschewed sex altogether, and the Rolling Stones hinted strongly at it, the Kinks came out full barrel with “All Day and All of the Night” and “You Really Got Me,” two songs that reach the taproot of teen desire. Their music moved into some truly strange situations (most notably “Lola”, rock’s first transvestite), but also some poignant ones as well– no song captures what I love about London and finding your own place in it quite so well as “Waterloo Sunset.”
72. Lionel Richie: A smooth-singing hit machine from the 1980s, Richie took the non-threatening pop sound of the Commodores and refined it into something greater as a solo artist. While the Commodores were, as one reviewer put it, funk music for dudes who sat when they peed, Richie broadened the appeal, and took those same sensibilities to rock’s female demographic. (By the way, have you noticed that most lists like this go unerringly for rock music that guys like? It is like having female fans is the kiss of death for rock credibility. Unfortunate, that.) One of my favorite zen moments from the 1980s was when Lionel guest-starred on Reading Rainbow, and Levar Burton asked him what the song “All Night Long” was about. Richie looked at him incredulously for a moment before replying, as slowly as he could, that “it’s about a party that lasts…all night long.” Between “Say You, Say Me” and “Hello”, you get some of the great heartbreak songs of the era by an underrated crooner.
71. Indigo Girls: Brainy and thought-provoking, the Indigo Girls are the best of a series of politically-conscious, folk-based female artists to have come into their own in the 1980s and 1990s. 10,000 Maniacs, Tori Amos, Jewel, Ani DiFranco, Sophie B. Hawkins, Shawn Colvin, and Meredith Brooks all owe a debt to them for representing this vital niche. Rock and roll, and its critics, tend to be dreadfully misogynist, and a group like the Indigo Girls rarely gets their due, but every interested party should give their catalog a good, honest listen. I am, to be honest, still finding things out about this group, but every little bit I hear from them, I like a little bit more. Remember, my list is a work-in-progress, and is ever in flux.
70. Grateful Dead: How do you rank a rock band that isn’t so much a musical listening experience as it is a way of life? The Grateful Dead managed to become a certified subculture in America, full of ordinary people coming out of the woodwork in tie-dye or bear-patterned t-shirts. You can’t just listen to their music to appreciate them, you have to immerse yourself in the Deadhead style of living for any of this to make the least bit of sense.
69. Earth, Wind & Fire: Home of rock’s second-best horn section, EW&F ruled the airwaves on Afrocentric funk and Philip Bailey’s highwire tenor voice. A fusion of the Spinners and Chicago, EW&F had an enviable list of hit singles and albums: “September”, “Fantasy”, “Reasons” and so on. Two events made them super-respectable in my book– they featured prominently in an absolutely clueless video my RA showed me at Houghton, where a confused-looking mustachioed guy from an unaccredited Baptist college tried to make the case that rock and roll was satanic. (EW&F’s Africa-and-horoscope-based symbology was the flimsy rationale behind their inclusion.) Pissing off the Christian Right earns you exactly five Alex Voltaire credibility points. Secondly, a number of rappers and R&B artists sample these guys like its their job, most notably the Black Eyed Pea’s “The Way You Move,” making a case for their enduring relevance and credibility.
68. Little Richard: “Elvis and all those other guys might have pioneered rock and roll,” Little Richard once boasted, “but I designed the blueprints.” Classic Little Richard– saturated with braggadocio, but nevertheless ringing true. Richard’s bawdy, campy rhythm and blues tracks became rock and roll staples. Like jazz, the very name of rock and roll is laden with sexual intonations, and Richard’s songs are ripe with possibility and insinuation. Is “Long Tall Sally” a call girl ? What does “sure like to ball” mean in “Good Golly Miss Molly?” Is the line “A wop bop a loo wop a wop bam boo” in “Tutti Frutti” trying to tell me something I’m not intuitively aware of? While never a commercial success, even in rock’s heyday, and never charting after the 1950s (one reason why I rate him so low), Little Richard was the first truly outlandish rock star, and the first to use the medium to do something more suggestive than harmlessly wiggling one’s hips. (A lot of Elvis bashing on this blog, but I assure you, it’s only going to get worse from here.) It got a little hard to take Little Richard seriously after he abandoned rock and roll for the gospel for the 3rd time in a decade, but he set an awful lot of interesting precedents, and he taught Paul McCartney how to scream.
Red Hot Chili Peppers: Neil Diamond: You know what? This is my list and I shouldn’t embarrass myself by writing about artists I felt compelled to include, but have never really listened to and don’t especially care about. Now, Neil Diamond I can write about. If you are reading this, Betsy, this one goes out to you. Originally considered “the Jewish Elvis”, he wrote pleasant-enough hits like “Cherry Cherry” and even shopped tracks like “I’m a Believer” to the Monkees. But he really hit his stride around 1966 and 1970, with a number of lesser-charting hits that were nevertheless some of the most interesting single releases from rock’s strongest two-year period. When I say this, I am thinking of tracks like “Shilo”– writing a song about your childhood imaginary friend could be disastrously mawkish, but when Neil does it, it is touching and poignant. Ditto “I Am I Said”– an intriguingly existential and autobiographical piece, and one of the first attempts at world music, the African-inspired “Soolaimon.” But the good times didn’t last– Neil entered the Hot August Night phase of his career when the decade ended, wore shiny tunics on stage, and the nature of his material changed drastically. He started dueting with Barbara Streisand, wrote drivel like “Forever in Blue Jeans”, and most unforgivably of all, wrote the soundtrack to the Jonathan Livingston Seagull film. A great shame, that.
66. REM: Intimate, quirky and honest, REM emerged from the University of Georgia scene to embark upon a pop music journey that lasted through the 1980s and 1990s. With some interesting political detours that were topical in the 1980s (“Exhuming McCarthy”), REM made the personal salient with tracks like “The One I Love,” “Everybody Hurts,” and a song that ended up on everybody’s mix tapes at some point in their lives, “Losing My Religion.” I want Michael Stipe to sing my dissertation some time– if the guy from the B-52s is unable to do it. REM’s greatest accomplish, bar none, is getting Generation X to show something resembling human emotion.
65. Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons: My favorite group from my least favorite era in rock and roll history. One of the saddest periods in the rock milieu was that twilight zone between the first generation of rock stars dying/being drafted into the army/joining the ministry/going to jail (Buddy Holly, Elvis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry, respectively), from about 1959 to 1964 when the British Invasion began in earnest. Into this dubious scenario, doo wop and novelty records entered the fray. The Four Seasons tempered and expanded the former category, infusing it with blue-eyed soul and branding it into the popular consciousness with Frankie Valli’s once-in-a-generation falsetto. What I find laudable is how they explored different sounds within their genre without changing their essential sound– early hits are predictably doo-wop (“Sherry”, “Big Girls Don’t Cry”), but they went for more British Invasiony material “Let’s Hang On” and even tried to do multi-part suites (“Opus 17/Bye Bye Baby”), before thriving, implausibly, in the 70s with soulful material like “Who Loves You” and the immortal “Oh, What a Night (Late December, 1963).”
64. ABBA: When I heard that ABBA had been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I was initially angry. Then, I was confused. Then, I was hungry and cranky. But finally, after some delicious tandoori chicken and naan, I achieved acceptance. Consider the narrative power behind their songs (putting aside, for the moment, their infectious catchiness and their bubblegum sensibilities)- they made an entire musical out of their catalog without stretching too much. No other group has pulled that off, while retaining global popularity. ABBA won me over despite every modicum of cynicism I possess. When I took a one-hour flight from Delhi to Benares a few years ago, one of my fellow travelers from Buffalo noted how I had spent the entire flight listening to the Mama Mia soundtrack on the in-flight entertainment system and was bopping my head along the entire while. So, I give up, and I, for one, welcome our new Nordic overlords. Move over Annie Lennox- Swede dreams are made of these.
63. David Bowie: Good. Innovative. Fascinating as hell. But badly, badly overrated. (sorry, Morgan). The original VH1 list had him in the top ten. Inexcusable. He created an okay-ish alter ego, Ziggy Stardust. “Rocket Man” probably couldn’t have existed without “Space Oddity”. And it is always fun to hear him trade vocal licks with Freddie Mercury on “Under Pressure” and Bing Crosby on the so-incongruous-its-jawdropping “Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth.” But that’s it, man. If any of you want to make a case that Bowie is better than this, I’m willing to listen, but I am just not seeing it.
62. Jethro Tull: Okay, so they recorded two of the 1970s’ best albums (Thick as a Brick and Aqualung), made progressive rock listenable and respectable, and all they are remembered for is somehow being awarded the first Hard Rock Grammy at Metallica’s expense? A tragedy. Rather than recalling Jethro Tull for an award they should not have gotten and did not deliberately seek out, let’s remember the incredible level of religious allegory shown in Aqualung, the clever storytelling in Thick as a Brick, and Ian Anderson, the only man to make the flute badass (with apologies to Will Ferrell.) Bonus points for making a Christmas album people would actually want to listen to. Unlike…
61. Chicago: I am through beating a dead horse. I have spent the last 15 years convincing everyone within earshot of Chicago’s merits, and most have remained stubbornly unconvinced. None of you will listen, but I will repeat my case in brief. They attempted to fuse rock and roll with the movemental features of classical music and the improvisational elements of jazz. There’s lots of times when this did work (“Ballet for a Girl in Buchanan”, “Introduction”, “Questions 67 & 68”, “Dialogue Part I and II”, “Elegy”), and many times when it didn’t (Chicago VII, the “Memories of Love” suite). Politically, they deserve credit for having one foot in the jazz world and another foot in the New Left movement– no other group achieving chart success hated Nixon quite this much (“State of the Union”, “A Song for Richard and his Friends,” “I Don’t Want Your Money”, “Harry Truman”, “While the City Sleeps.”) By 1975, drugs, drink, floozies, and exhaustion all took their toll, and the band was never the same, churning out records of increasing banality, finally resulting in a bad disco album (Chicago 13), a bad new wave album (Chicago 14), ten years of recording songs by David Foster and Dianne Warren, and twenty years of Oldies tours, poorly thought-out Christmas albums, greatest hits compilations, Vegas engagements, and QVC appearances. But their first 6 studio albums are among the best work from rock’s best decade, the 1970s (not a typo), and I stand by that. You would be hard pressed to find a better synthesis of music-theory creativity and commercial intuition.