Waiting on the Countdown
Despite the fact that I’ve never lived within a thousand miles of the Liberty Bell, my favorite radio station – thanks to a broadband connection and a Roku Soundbridge – is WXPN, 88.5 FM in Philadelphia. After previously asking listeners to help compile lists of history’s 885 greatest songs and albums, the good folks at XPN are embarking on an even more ambitious project: the 885 greatest artists. Details are here.
In making my list of top ten artists and ten more honorable mention picks, I imposed only one guideline, the Sufficiently Obsessive Rule, which requires that I own at least (a) four CDs’ worth of an artist’s work, or (b) 50% of his/her/its recorded output. Then I violated that rule a time or two (I had my reasons). The result is a list of twenty artists who I care about and listen to, not a list of the best or most influential acts of the rock era. Dozens of artists received some level of consideration, and if you see some ridiculous, glaring omission, you can safely assume that he/she/they came in at number 21 on my list. That is unless you’re thinking of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, in which case I can assure you that they got no consideration at all. Anyway, here’s my list:
1. The Rolling Stones. I was born in 1968, right as the Stones entered the four-year peak that produced Beggars Banquet, Let it Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street. The songs on those records (and the ones that came before) are as elemental to me as sunshine or oxygen, and equally essential to life. For me, there is no Before Stones period; they always were. I remember hearing “Brown Sugar” on the radio at age four or five and knowing this is for me. At the same time, I’m old enough to remember them at the top of their form, when Some Girls came out and “Miss You” was all over the radio and Mick was leering into the camera on Saturday Night Live. They were larger than life to me in a way that no band has ever been since, or could ever hope to be again. But the mystique wouldn’t mean jack if the music didn’t continue to hit me right to the body. And that’s why in the age-old debate, I’ll always be more of a Stones guy than a Beatles guy. I love the Beatles, but it’s more of an intellectual love, their music appealing to my head. For the Stones, it’s a lusty love, their hard distillation of the blues going straight to my heart and my hips. And that, to me, is rock and roll.
2. Bob Dylan. The misguided managers of history often label Dylan a “poet,” as if it’s pejorative to call him what he really is, a songwriter. The words don’t just exist on a page, and they’re not meant to be spoken; they’re elevated by music and enhanced by Dylan’s brilliant signing. The way he uses his rusty voice to probe and tug and tear at words is rarely matched in rock and roll. He sneers (“Positively 4th Street”) and rages (“Masters of War”) and comforts (“Lay Lady Lay”) and regrets (“You’re A Big Girl Now”) in a way that makes liars of the know-nothings who claim he can’t sing. Combine his epic history with the fact that he remains the epitome of mysterious, unassailable cool, and that he continues to make tremendous records well into his sixties, and it’s easy to see why Bob Dylan is my ultimate individual rock and roll icon.
3. Bruce Springsteen. I understand all the criticisms – the self-mythologizing, the cornball humor, the over-reliance on stock phrases and metaphors (really, Bruce, how many times can one man “shut out the lights” over the course of a single album?) – but in the end, none of that matters because of the dizzying quality of the work. For the first fifteen years of his career, Springsteen made a handful of great records and never less than a very good one, and he covered more ground than he’s credited for, from the hard-swinging raucousness of The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, to the every-hair-in-its-place perfection of Born to Run, the desolate beauty of Nebraska, and the intimate confessions of Tunnel of Love. And he has never failed to respect his audience, proving it all night, night after night, in every corner of the globe.
4. The Replacements. No band has mattered as much to me as these guys did during my collegiate years. It was the first time that my favorite band seemed more like peers than heroes. They described a world I could understand, full of loners, lovers, buddies, break-ups, alienation, alcoholic binges, good times, girls who got away, romance, regret, heartbreak, and ultimately, an unrelenting hope. And they rocked. Except when they didn’t, and then, they produced some of the prettiest songs that any group of neighborhood miscreants could hope to make. I miss them in a way that’s almost impossible to explain.
5. Elvis Costello. Me at my Costelloholics Anonymous meeting: “Hi, my name is Michael and I love Goodbye Cruel World.”
6. The Hold Steady. Are they really the sixth greatest act of all-time? Probably not, but they will be once Boys and Girls in America hits the streets on October 3.
7. The Clash. They would be on my list had they released only London Calling, the most indispensable of my desert island discs. But they also gave us the disciplined fury of The Clash and the unabashedly ambitious Sandinista!, not to mention the radio-ready Combat Rock, and Give ‘Em Enough Rope, which competently kept time between the era-defining first and third albums. I love the idea of this band – fusing the music, culture and politics of the first and third worlds with a rare precision and ferocity – more than any other band I know.
8. Bob Marley. I was twelve years old when Marley died, so I only came to him later, like much of the world did, through Legend, an album that instantly changed my way of thinking. To the extent that I thought of reggae at all, I found it tedious, limited by the sameness of the rhythms. Marley destroyed the barriers I had built for myself. These were great songs that could have been rendered brilliantly in any style. On the version of “No Woman, No Cry” that’s on Legend, and on the entire Live! album from which the song was originally culled, Marley communicates with an audience in a way that I’ve never heard surpassed and rarely equaled. His original catalog remains the most spiritually satisfying music I know.
9. The Beatles. I psych myself out when contemplating the Beatles. Their cultural ubiquity and near-universal adoration can make it hard to tell where their broader impact ends and my own thinking begins. At one point in my life, they would have been the clear number one. But after living with their records for so long, I put them on the shelf and moved on to other things. Still, every once in a while, I pull out Rubber Soul or the White Album and am somehow surprised by how much I love them, how adventurous they still seem, and how my appreciation for all contemporary music is somehow filtered through them.
10. Prince. The human jukebox. For a span of about ten years, he could do no wrong, and the weirder he got – the bass-less funk of “When Doves Cry,” the spare falsetto bounce of “Kiss,” the faux-psychedelia of “Raspberry Beret” – the better he sounded. As a songwriter, producer, one-man band and epic guitar player he has few (if any) peers.
James Brown. His most famous statement is still probably 1962’s Live at the Apollo, with its staccato rhythms, horn bleats and otherworldly showmanship, but for me, the best, most irresistible work came later, after “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” when he started to churn out the leanest, toughest, funkiest music I’ve ever heard, the period bookended by “Cold Sweat” and “Papa Don’t Take No Mess.” I understand why some people don’t like some of the music that I love, but I don’t understand how anyone could not like that. Bootsy! Catfish! Bobby Byrd! May-cee-o!
Miles Davis. How could one man produce the stately, traditional elegance of Relaxin’, the revolutionary grace of Kind of Blue, the celestial beauty of In A Silent Way, the churning abstract power of Bitches Brew, and the violent outer-space funk of On the Corner? Miles Davis is more responsible for expanding my thinking about what constitutes beauty in music than any other five artists combined.
The Ramones. Thanks to a forward-thinking local cable system and some lax parenting, I, at age eleven, was able to watch Rock and Roll High School about 20 times during a six-week span in 1979. I remember thinking to myself “these guys are gonna be huge,” which, of course, they were and they weren’t. But they were always great, a fact obvious to a pre-pubescent kid in central Illinois, but elusive to a world that used its disposable income to help the guys in Styx buy Rolls Royces while the bruddahs settled for the subway.
Talking Heads. Intellectual nerds absorb Al Green and Afrobeat and recruit the guy who played organ on The Modern Lovers? Holy crap, are you kidding me? If this band didn’t already exist, I’d invent them in my dreams and I’d be wearing the Big Suit.
Lucinda Williams. The best, most literate and evocative songwriter working today, grounded so deeply in the traditional music of the American South that it oozes from her pores as naturally as sweat on a sultry Mississippi night. Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is my favorite album of the past decade, and the guitar-as-life metaphor on “Drunken Angel” is one of the great lyrical achievements in all of rock and roll. By comparison, the love-as-drug metaphor on the title track to her Essence album is pretty mundane, but the aching, arching chorus is as irresistible as any in recent memory.
Marshall Crenshaw. His first album has been a touchstone for me for more than two decades, one of the most enduringly likeable records I’ve ever known. A pure pop classicist, Crenshaw writes, plays and sings for the mass audience he always deserved but never got. In retrospect, his debut may have almost been too perfect, leaving the impression that it’s all the Marshall Crenshaw you need to know. And if that means you’ve never heard “Starless Summer Sky” or “Television Light,” well, how sad for you.
Marvin Gaye. For me, Marvin Gaye is the most sophisticated and mature artist to emerge from the classic soul era. His closest rivals would be Curtis Mayfield, Al Green and Stevie Wonder (all of whom I love), but I don’t think any of them could quite pull off the subtle grace of What’s Going On, the sexual heat of Let’s Get it On, or the shattering personal narrative of Here, My Dear. And, of course, before he made any of those records, he gave us "I Heard it Through the Grapevine” and a dozen other tunes that would justify his place in history all by themselves.
Fela Kuti. Fela is here partly as a representative for the growing number of African musicians who have become important to me in recent years, and partly because his own music is altogether mind-blowing. Fusing James Brown’s hard funk and Miles Davis’s electric expansiveness with a decidedly revolutionary Nigerian point of view, his (typically) lengthy works percolate and bubble over without ever meandering. The result is tough, sinewy, insistent music that eventually worked its way into the American culture on its own and through descendents like Talking Heads’ Remain in Light.
Chuck Berry. According to a recent article in Slate, when rock critic Eric Weisbard was asked to describe his former colleague Robert Christgau's musical aesthetics, he replied, “Chuck Berry.” That pretty much sums it up for me, too. A straight line runs through the music I love best, and it ends at the beginning, which is Chuck. Not only did Chuck Berry codify rock and roll’s sound and its format (before Chuck, RnR’s primary instrument was the piano; after and forever, it has been the guitar), he also set the stage for a sort of lyricism that was miles away from teenagers in love. The frenetic wordplay of “Too Much Monkey Business” is an obvious antecedent to Bob Dylan’s 1960’s work, and the “hurry home drops” on Marie’s cheek in “Memphis” manage to pack a full song’s worth of pathos into three small words. The original.
The Pretenders. Sure, it gets pretty erratic after Learning to Crawl, but the original configuration of this band was so perfect, the songs so tough and sassy, the image rendered with such clarity, that I couldn’t leave them off the list. The Pretenders spoke to me, and they reconciled two radically opposed ideas, combining punk spirit with professional chops to create a radio-ready presence that made concessions to no one. They sounded great on their own terms, exploring dangerous territory (oh, the words that came out of her mouth!) that got over on the strength of a muscular, supple rhythm section, James Honeyman-Scott’s strikingly tough and pretty guitar style, and Chrissie’s sultry, pouty persona. Damn right she’s special.