Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Greatest Rock and Roll Artists of All Time

There is something futile yet exciting about making lists – ever since man declared himself king of all beasts, he has let his mind be ruled by a sense of hierarchy which often arbitrary if not an illusion altogether. In an attempt to rise above bias, one falls prey to the very biases they possess. This is especially so when the matter at hand involves any form of art, a creation that inherently transcends the ordinary human world on its own terms.

Putting together a list of the greatest rock and roll artists is stupid – as stupid as making a list of the greatest films or books of all time – and it’s even more so when they are ranked, as opposed to grouped in some arbitrary number (often 100, if not some other power of ten) and listed alphabetically.

Well, I hate lists that do the latter. Alphabetical lists are worse than having no list at all. If one can commit to someone being in the “top 100,” why can’t they commit to the amount of importance each person has in that group? To not do so is to be noncommittal, if not outright lazy.

Hence my task at hand. For months I’ve been tinkering with a list of the greatest rock and roll artists (whatever that means), obsessing over who goes where and why. It feels less like making a list than creating a canon – or perhaps the canon – for postwar popular music. This would be like asking Thomas Jefferson to upload the perfect selection of western writing onto a Kindle, or having Alfred Hitchcock fill a Netflix cue with his choices for the most important films of all time.

This is a big task that evokes the words of Bob Seger (who is decidedly not on the list): “What to leave in, what to leave out…” The mission at hand is probably as fruitless as running against the wind, but what would humanity be without wings that have been melted by the sun?

To find our way we must begin at the beginning. “The Greatest Rock and Roll Artists of All Time.” With the exception of “the” and “of,” every single word in this title is suspect. What does it mean to be the “greatest”? What exactly is “rock and roll”? Who can be considered an “artist”? How are we defining “all time”?

Each of these questions could produce an entire volume in and of themselves, so in an effort to keep things moving, what follows is a basic definition/point-of-view that I have on each of them:

Greatest: I use this term to unite what could be thought of as two distinct concepts, one internal and one external: level of artistic quality and amount of influence on other performers. Thus, ideally the two are roughly the same, but in some rare cases, one form of greatness may be enough to outweigh the other factors; such is the case with the Sex Pistols, whose influence was enormous, while their actual body of work was small and uneven by comparison.

Rock and Roll: This is one that I’ve struggled with for the better part of my life, for which I blame a post-’60s mentality. Around the time of Sgt. Pepper and Monterey Pop, rock and roll was being viewed as a primarily white music, while the music made by African Americans was increasingly thought of as rhythm and blues or soul music. Of course, these categories always existed to some degree in postwar music, but as ’50s music became ’60s music, things began to shift. No one would think twice about including people like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Bo Diddley on a list of rock and roll artists, but for every one ’60s African American rock and roller (Jimi Hendrix), there seem to be scores more that we put into a different category like soul, rhythm and blues, or funk (James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke).

This is ultimately unfair and deceiving for everyone involved. White rock and roll is unimaginable without black rock and roll (and vice-versa), even once the ’50s had ended: One only needs to think of the Beatles studying Motown records for both their song structure and bass lines; the Rolling Stones directly drawing their early sound and repertoire from the Chess Records catalogue; the Who initially declaring themselves “Maximum R&B” and filling a quarter of their debut album with James Brown covers; Bob Dylan famously calling Smokey Robinson “America’s greatest living poet.” Similarly, Aretha Franklin had R&B hits with her covers of songs by the Beatles, Carole King, and Simon & Garfunkel; Otis Redding covered the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” as a response to their covers of his songs and wrote “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay” while listening to Sgt. Pepper over and over; Ray Charles was greatly influenced by the classic country singers who more clearly influenced the likes of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Buddy Holly; Marvin Gaye’s masterpiece What’s Going On is unthinkable without the advances made on the album format by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones.

To the performers, it seems that white rock and roll was black rock and roll (and vice-versa) – this music was their influence, their competition, and the standard to which they held their own music. If that is how they saw things, who are we to question that?

Besides, the whole rock and roll vs. rhythm and blues always felt a little uncomfortable to me in our supposed Land of the Free. It makes me think of when I used to work in a bookstore that kept all fiction by black authors separate from white ones; perhaps this was initially done to keep the “urban” fiction together, but by the time I got there, it had been made consistent to the level of full-blown segregation. More than once I approached a confused customer looking for James Baldwin books between the Jane Austen novels and Frank L. Baum stories; “Oh we keep James Baldwin in African American Fiction,” I would reply, “Or as I like to call it, ‘Fiction’.”

Artists: I use this term loosely to mean all rock and roll performers. Even if rock and roll was once considered the bastard child of popular music, there is little to deny that there is a distinct artistry – from Elvis and Chuck Berry all the way down to Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, and the White Stripes – that goes along with the best of it.

All Time: Obviously this will be skewed to the past for two interconnected reasons that parallel my working definition of “Greatest”: First, newer artists have had less time to create a great body of music, and secondly, newer artists need more time to gage their subsequent influence. Conversely, the fact that the list is filled with so many older performers is because they have had so much time for their music to spread its influence.

Initially, I wanted to write a list of the Top 25. But, as happens (at least with me), 25 becomes 30, 30 becomes 35, and so on until I find myself staring down a list of 100. Well, this time I was determined not to let that happen. There's a level of “great” (or perhaps a better word here might be essential) that I felt could be cut off -- i.e., artists like Sam Cooke, the Ramones, and David Bowie are “great” (or perhaps a better word here might be essential) in a way that artists as great and influential as Simon & Garfunkel, Cream, and the Kinks are not. This is not to say one is necessary better than the other -- I listen to the latter artists at least as much as the former, if not more so -- it’s more the idea of a class of an artist who is legendary as opposed to influential.

Maybe this is all just in my head. But when I began to crunch the numbers for real, it seemed that a top 40 was the way to go -- the difference between 40 and 50 seemed the ideal point at which the legendary crossed over into the influential and I liked the idea of keeping it mirroring the original yardstick of success in rock and roll, the Billboard Top 40.

All of that said, here is my current list for the Top 40 Greatest Rock and Roll Artists of All Time, at least for today (and subject to change within hours, if not minutes):

  1. The Beatles
  2. Elvis Presley
  3. Bob Dylan
  4. The Rolling Stones
  5. Chuck Berry
  6. James Brown
  7. Jimi Hendrix
  8. Aretha Franklin
  9. Ray Charles
  10. Michael Jackson
  11. The Beach Boys
  12. Led Zeppelin
  13. The Sex Pistols
  14. Jerry Lee Lewis
  15. Little Richard
  16. Bob Marley
  17. Stevie Wonder
  18. The Who
  19. Sam Cooke
  20. Buddy Holly
  21. The Velvet Underground
  22. Nirvana
  23. Madonna
  24. Bruce Springsteen
  25. U2
  26. Run-D.M.C.
  27. Marvin Gaye
  28. Otis Redding
  29. Elton John
  30. Diana Ross & The Supremes
  31. The Ramones
  32. The Clash
  33. Fats Domino
  34. The Doors
  35. Public Enemy
  36. Janis Joplin
  37. David Bowie
  38. The Byrds
  39. Neil Young
  40. Radiohead

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