49 to 26
49. John Coltrane
T: Whenever I hear Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” I am reminded of 2 things. One…what an elegant piece of music. Two… god I know nothing about jazz.
M: Physically powerful and dexterous, intellectually rigorous, and emotionally brooding and insistent, Coltrane’s work on the tenor (and the soprano) is deadly serious stuff. The sides he cut for Atlantic and Impulse are revered (and rightly so), but it’s his sole Blue Note release (Blue Train) that I go back to most often, with Trane and an all-star cast navigating new territory as he moves from Miles Davis side man to a band leader of prodigious skill.
48. Billy Joel
T: Billy Joel 1971 to 1977 – energetic pug from the wrong side of the tracks writes hook heavy slice of life melodramas. Billy Joel 1978 to 2006 – schmaltzy hack. I’ll go to the mat for Piano Man… love that record.
M: He recorded Glass Houses. He crashes his car into other people’s houses. Isn’t there a proverb about that?
47. Ray Charles
T: Here’s Flip Wilson’s take on Ray Charles:
Christopher Columbus convinces the Spanish monarchs to fund his voyage by noting that discovering America means that he can also discover Ray Charles. Hearing this, Queen Isabella, sounding not unlike Wilson's celebrated "Geraldine," says that "Chris" can have "all the money you want, Honey--You go find Ray Charles!!" When Columbus departs from the dock, Isabella is there, testifying to one and all that "Chris gonna find Ray Charles!!"
M: Almost 840 entries in, and I’m starting to crack. They just keep coming. And now we’re tackling some true greats, artists impossible to slag and not susceptible to original praise. What am I going to say about Ray Charles in three sentences that hasn’t been said better over the past fifty years? Nothing, so I’m just going to sit back and listen.
T: For exploding barriers and getting real rock and roll back on the radio, Nirvana deserves this spot. Melding three of my favorite ingredients – raucous thunder, tremendous pop hooks and passionate, beer-stained vocals – they took punk rock to the bank. On the downside… they influenced legions of derivate, mediocre followers that gave alt-rock a bad name.
M: The first time I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (when the video premiered on 120 Minutes), it left me cold. The second time, it rocked my world. It rocked everyone’s world, kicking open the door to the mainstream, allowing a flood of worthy bands to flow through. And none of those bands was better than these guys, who left a long trail of brutal beauty in their short time with us. Sharp as a razor, louder than bombs.
45. Tom Petty
T: Mixing Byrdsian folk-rock with Stones swagger, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have been the most consistent rock artist of the last 30 years. For novices, try 1979’s Damn The Torpedoes or 1989’s solo Full Moon Fever. How did I keep him out of my top 20?
M: With a crackerjack band that simultaneously channeled the Byrds, Stones and CCR, Tom Petty – a punk rock kindred spirit but by no means a punk – cut through 1970s rock bloat with concise, insistent songs that harkened back to the boy-meets-girl politics of the late 1950s and early 60s. Thirty years down the road, he has matured but not mellowed, remaining one of the great American rockers.
44. Frank Zappa
T: What can I say here… I don’t dig Zappa.
M: The eighth-grade humor doesn’t hold up at all, but when Frank plays guitar, it really is like weasels ripping your flesh.
43. Richard Thompson
T: While there’s much to recommend in Thompson’s solo work and Fairport Convention, it’s the devastating, moving Richard and Linda Thompson records that hold me in their sway. Can I get a huge huzzah for I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, Pour Down Like Silver and Shoot Out the Lights. And…umm… dude can play.
M: I’m going to take “Richard Thompson” to mean everything he did post-Fairport, including his work with Linda, which easily trumps his true solo work. They should issue copies of Shoot Out the Lights at birth. (ed.- standard disclaimers)
42. Peter Gabriel
T: I kinda lost interest after he stopped naming his solo records after himself, but any record titled Peter Gabriel is worth checking out. 1978’s “D.I.Y”. boiled down the punk/indie/lo-fi aesthetic to two lines:
When things get so big, I don't trust them at all,
You want some control, you've got to keep it small.
M: In my high school and early collegiate days, I was a fanatic (there was a time that Security was almost certainly my favorite album ever). And though the full-fledged heat of that relationship has become a more distant admiration, I continue to recognize the power of those first five albums, even if I don’t return to them much.
41. Tom Waits
T: Am I alone in preferring the 70’s piano playing troubadour to the 80’s boho carny sound collagist? Yeah probably… but no matter which version of Waits you prefer there is an endless supply of losers, loners, barroom weirdoes and haunting melodies that make Waits the most original and boundary pushing singer-songwriter this side of Dylan.
M: Let’s get this straight – he’s a great singer. The voice may not be pretty, but he takes songs places that most mere mortals could never dream of. And his skills as a songwriter are undeniable. But it’s as a conceptualist that he’s gone from cult status to true godhead. He doesn’t just make albums; he creates worlds, full of their own languages and realities. When you put on Rain Dogs, you step out of your own life into an environment that is strange, beautiful, and only precariously connected to any place you’ve ever been.
T: Philly… I’ll give you Fragile (barely), but for the most part these guys brought the pain. I still wince at the memory of my buddy Tony subjecting me to Close To The Edge. You know… it’s OK for songs to end.
M: Let’s get it out of the way. I really like 90125. It’s the zenith of the CorpRock 1980s, a monument to monstrous production, slick playing and big hooks. It’s the rest of the catalog – yeah, I know, the “true Yes” – that bores me. There are moments here and there that I really like (“Roundabout” being a prime example), but many of the somnambulant instrumental passages – and anything touched by the heavy hand and humorless mind of Rick Wakeman – send me off the deep end.
T: Prince owned the 80’s… from Dirty Mind (1980) to Lovesexy (1988), he had a creative run that rivaled the heyday of the countdown’s top three. Since then it’s been rather patchy…anyone need a used, barely listened to copy of Come or Chaos and Disorder? Didn’t think so.
M: 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.
38. Pearl Jam
T: You know I never got Pearl Jam until Springsteen brought Eddie Vedder out to sing a couple tunes on 2004s Vote For Change finale. The band can still bludgeon a song to death, but Vedder’s voice and megawatt frontman charisma are enough to carry the day. Who’s got me covered next time they come to town?
M: I was slow to warm to them (it took me a year or so to get around to buying Ten), and they’ve never blown me away like Nirvana did, but I’m glad that a band like this can still exist – principled and adventurous and with the ability to connect on a grand scale.
37. Jackson Browne
T: An XPN wet dream (and immortalized in song by Tonio K), Jackson Browne’s first three albums are about as perfect as records get. Unfortunately his social awareness, while extremely commendable as he raised money and awareness for several worthwhile causes, resulted in preachy, stilted music. But I digress - Late For The Sky… my god what a great record.
M: Trip will say it better than me, because Browne meant more to him, but I think Late for the Sky is the best album of its kind, the absolute pinnacle of the SoCal singer-songwriter movement.
36. The Band
T: What a perfect name… The Band. It took a mostly Canadian group to distill the essence of America into three classics that inspired a generation of followers. If you don’t own Music From Big Pink, The Band and Stage Fright… I can’t help you brother.
M: Better than anyone, they captured the small beauty and mystery of America’s back roads and small town squares, while also conveying a mysticism bigger than us all.
35. James Taylor
T: The archetype singer-songwriter, James Taylor is comfort food. He’s long johns in winter, a frosty beer on a summer day, he’s Breyer’s vanilla. I wouldn’t place him in this select group, but I’m always happy to hear him on the radio. Extra credit for Carly Simon.
M: There are a lot of good songs here. A lot. But I have a hard time taking more than one at a time. I’m all for sensitive guys (I am a sensitive guy), but as I’ve discussed with my dentist, too much sensitivity can be painful.
34. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
T: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – great talents all, but is it possible several ballots read: 1. Neil Young 2. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young 3. Crosby, Stills & Nash 4. Crosby-Nash 5. Stills-Young Band 6. Stephen Stills 7. David Crosby 8. Graham Nash 9. Dallas Taylor 10. CPR? I’m thinking yes… but all these votes should have been lumped in together where they belong – with Neil Young.
M: All four members either have or will make the list, and two subsets of the group – Crosby, Stills and Nash and the Buffalo Springfield (Stills and Young) – have made it as well, bringing the total number of configurations on the countdown to seven. It’s really a testament to how lame that handful of Crosby and Nash albums must have been to keep them off the list as a duo. And no love for the Mynah Birds? Rick James gets no respect. (ed.- you know the drill by now. We’re suckers for the obvious)
33. Elton John
T: King of Pop before Michael. Excellent string of radio chartbusters.
M: The beginning of my awareness of popular music coincided with his big duck suit and the ascension of “Do Go Breaking My Heart” to the top of the charts. Well, those were the hedonistic go-go 70’s, and I suppose everyone gets a pass. And though some of the early high points (“Daniel” for instance) are a little too sticky sweet for me, some of those melodies will stand for one hundred years. I don’t think I’ll ever get “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” out of my head.
32. John Lennon
T: Beatle John… no death outside family and friends saddened me more. The rock and roll icon.
M: Every once in a while, don’t you stop to wonder what he might have done these past twenty-six years? And doesn’t it break your heart a little every time?
31. Talking Heads
T: While I prefer the minimalist, twitchy energy of Talking Heads ’77, they gave art punk a commercial figurehead. Consistently invigorating and slightly detached, the T-Heads stellar 10+ year career was a punk rock lifetime.
M: 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.
30. The Doors
T: My sister gave me L.A. Woman and Sgt Pepper for my 14th birthday and for that I’m forever grateful. It was like opening another world (you mean there are good songs that don’t get played on the radio?) that has now absorbed the lion’s share of my adult life. For that reason, and despite the fact that classic rock radio tried to beat the Doors and Hendrix into the ground, the Doors and L.A. Woman remain a sentimental favorite.
M: Once, Jim’s act seemed menacing. Now, it seems like a big put on, and I don’t mean that as a slight. He brought theater to the masses on the backs of songs strong enough to support his vision. Ray Manzarek’s organ remains one of the most unique sounds in all of rock and roll.
29. Bonnie Raitt
T: Classy and above reproach, I’ve never been able to fully embrace Bonnie Raitt’s music. I guess it’s because I’m not a blues guy. But her versions of “Angel From Montgomery” and “Love Has No Pride” are definitive.
M: Heresy time. I think she’s good. But I don’t think she’s anywhere near this good. Still, I think she’s better than . . .
28. Dave Matthews Band
T: I have reached the point of flabbergastation. My rock and roll heart is broken with this selection.
M: I knew this was coming. All those ants marching to the ballot box to tell us that this outfit is better than Aretha Franklin, the Ramones, Nirvana, Prince, James Brown, Frank Sinatra and the Pixies. Look, I understand the appeal. They’ve got a soprano sax player, like Kenny G, and that’s pleasant. And they’ve got a fiddler, which is nice at the holidays, because it appeals to your family members who dig the musical theater and also the ones who like a hoedown. It’s like when my wife’s grandmother told me that I’d like Branson, Missouri, because in addition to the country and western, there’s music that satisfies the young people, like Andy Williams. That’s the DMB, music so universal that it appeals to the kids from the western suburbs and the northern suburbs.
27. Steely Dan
T: Oh how I loved those first four records – sophisticated pop, great playing, and sly, cynical lyrics. The Royal Scam was the tipping point, and from Aja on out it was lite jazz snoozeville
M: Everyone’s favorite jazzy misanthropes, Becker and Fagen occupy a unique place in the pantheon. And they’re not just the only ones ever to use the word “piaster” in a song; they may be the only ones to use it in a sentence.
26. Miles Davis
T: Miles – even I know cool when it hits me in the face. And he had the greatest Grammy Award acceptance ever (1987 for Tutu) – he came to the microphone, leaned in and… said nothing. Held the Grammy up, and walked off stage. That’s cool.
M: 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.