99 to 70
99. Warren Zevon
T: I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead… my current mantra. Zevon’s career was pretty shaggy after Warren Zevon and Excitable Boy but his wild-eyed cynicism endures… as does that marvelous croak of a voice. The Wind was a stirring epitaph.
M: Wickedly funny, Zevon built his rep on a series of slyly sarcastic tunes (“She really worked me over good, she was a credit to her gender” remains one of my favorite lines), but the devastatingly human last will and testament The Wind – the reflection of a man confronting his own death – is the work that now defines his memory.
98. Patty Griffin
T: A little early in her career to be in the top 100, she’s about the most promising singer-songwriter going. In 10 years she may earn this spot.
M: I stopped in Vegas before the countdown and made a two-dollar wager that Patty Griffin would crack the top 100. I now have a $1,000,000 ticket to cash.
97. Ludwig Van Beethoven
T: Schroeder couldn’t be wrong.
M: My view of Beethoven is filtered through the pop-culture prisms of Saturday Night Fever (Walter Murphy’s funky “A Fifth of Beethoven”), A Clockwork Orange (“a little Ludwing Van”), Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (‘whoah”) and Schroeder’s relentless pursuit of toy piano perfection in Peanuts. This does not speak well of me.
96. The Pixies
T: Talk about dying young and leaving a good looking corpse. Their quiet/loud/quiet… or was it loud/quiet/loud provided a monstrous template for too many marginal bands that followed. Nirvana sends their thanks.
M: The hardest thing to achieve in music is true originality, yet the Pixies emerged in the mid-1980s sounding like no one else. Their searing, extreme dynamics and surrealist lyrics made for an irresistible cacophony that remains as compelling as it was at its conception.
95. John Prine
T: “There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes,Jesus Christ died for nothin' I suppose.Little pitchers have big ears,Don't stop to count the years,Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios.”
“Sam Stone” from his epochal debut captured post-Vietnam America through the eyes of a desperate junkie veteran who’s not able to re-enter his prior orbit. It’s Prine’s empathy for his characters that sets him apart. Bruised Orange and The Missing Years are no slouches either.
M: Because there was no major Prine renaissance among teenagers in the 1980s, I come to his songs like museum pieces, works that were created in and for some previous time. Trip can do him far greater justice than I.
94. John Hiatt
T: A slow starter whose career peaked with the uniformly excellent trio of Bring The Family, Slow Turning and Stolen Moments, Hiatt’s keen eye for everyday detail make him an Americana favorite.
M: There aren’t that many Hiatt tunes that I love. Why is that? I’m not sure, maybe his work is just a little too straight for my tastes. But his original version of “Thing Called Love” rocks like nobody’s business. And “Have a Little Faith in Me,” of course, is about as good as it gets.
93. Carole King
T: Already established and extremely successful as a gigantic hit songwriter, no one could have been prepared for Tapestry, the godhead of singer-songwriter records.
M: The string of hits she and ex-hubby Gerry Goffin wrote for others is staggering, but her own star turn was a uniquely pivotal moment. Before, successful female recording acts had been either carefully conceived creations or supremely gifted singers. Then along came a natural woman who reached a massive audience on the sole strength of a quiver of good songs. No marketing campaign can ever top that.
92. Louis Armstrong
T: What A Wonderful World… Michael will tell you about the Armstrong’s particular genius.
M: The most important American musician ever. What more can I say?
91. Paul McCartney
T: Yep… he belongs. By the way, nobody’s happier about Heather Mills than Yoko Ono.
M: Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs. What’s wrong with that?
90. Ryan Adams
T: Yes he’s badly in need of an editor… or at least Jon Landau. But the proof is out there on Heartbreaker, Gold and Jacksonville City Nights. Even on his lesser outings there are some incredible tracks. My prediction… the best is yet to come.
M: Heartbreaker and Gold delivered on the promise of their titles, but he’s fumbled for a consistent winner ever since. One day he’s going to resist the temptation to share his every musical thought with us, and the result is going to be a monster.
89. Lyle Lovett
T: While I prefer stripped down Lyle (“God Will”, “If I Had A Boat”) to large band Lyle, I’ve got one question? How’d he ever snag Julia Roberts?
M: Lovett brings a wry sensibility and a sense of whimsy to a style that is often all-too-serious. The result is the most charming country-inflected music of the past generation and a performer uniquely able to deliver it.
88. The Moody Blues
T: Even as a dorky 15 year old I knew “Nights in White Satin” was lame. Time has not changed my opinion.
M: A bloody snooze.
87. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
T: Rock Me Amadeus!
M: Surely you weren’t expecting any sophisticated analysis of classical music by this point.
86. The Ramones
T: Paring down rock to its essence – simple, short, loud, melodic, fast – the Ramones destroyed all that came before them. Thanks for that. Loud. Fast. Rules.
M: Before the Ramones, punk was an idea. After, it was a sound – their sound. By simply taking rock and roll back to its essence and cranking the volume, they increased the thrills exponentially.
85. The Velvet Undergound
T: Greatest band name ever… how wild was this sh*t in 1967?
M: The first two albums (the ones with John Cale), with their avant orientation and tales of extreme decadence, get name-checked the most, but it’s the third and fourth records, where Lou approaches a pastoral grace, that turn me on the most. “Some people, they like to go out dancing, and other people, they have to work,” Lou sings, as if those were two separate groups, rather than just the two sides to our personalities.
84. Fleetwood Mac
T: I’ll go over and sit with the chess club after this admission – I prefer the mega units-moving pop monolith to the blues based 60’s version. Lindsey Buckingham rules!
M: The Brit blues purists wanna talk about Peter Green and Danny Kirwan, but everybody else knows that the Mac is about Buckingham, Nicks and McVie, the three-headed songwriting/harmonizing colossus that is roundly hailed for their finely-detailed pop perfection (there’s a dissertation to be written about the acoustic guitar overdub on “Go Your Own Way”), but not given nearly enough credit for their adventurous spirit. They throw everything against the wall on Tusk – a great and greatly underappreciated record – and the vast majority sticks.
83. Willie Nelson
T: I thought he’d be higher.
M: A master songwriter and classic interpreter of others’ songs. The albums he made with Jerry Wexler during his brief run on Atlantic restored country’s cool.
82. Leonard Cohen
T: The voice is an acquired taste, the songs are not. Dig his mug on The Songs of Leonard Cohen… a dead ringer for Al Pacino.
M: Though I prefer Nick Drake’s lighter melancholic touch, Cohen can be remarkably affecting even when – especially when – he’s at his most heavy-handed, like on the epic “Famous Blue Raincoat.”
81. Tori Amos
T: Y KANT TORI SMILE.
M: She sure has rubbed that piano bench raw.
80. Ani DiFranco
T: Gotta admire her mile wide independent streak, refusal to sign with a major and continue self-releasing records, plus her in-your-face approach. As for her music… she’s kinda hot.
M: I think the overall quality of her work would improve if she’d slow down a little (see also, Adams, Ryan), but there are so many memorable tunes (“Napoleon” is a personal fave) and she’s a flat-out electrifying acoustic guitarist, a percussive powerhouse.
79. Red Hot Chili Peppers
T: Crunk punk funk.
M: Maybe it was because I remember them as drug gobbling funk goofballs, but I’ve never been able to take the serious Red Hots seriously. I thought Fishbone was going to be the band to make it big.
78. Ben Folds
T: The Elton John of the 90’s… and I mean that in a good way.
M: “Some summers in the evening after six or so, I walk on down the hill, and maybe buy a beer. I think about my friends, sometime I wish they lived out here, but they wouldn’t dig this town.” Man, I love that. And the guy has some kind of ear for melody, too.
77. B.B. King
T: I remember hearing “The Thrill is Gone” when I was a teenager and thinking it was some deep sh*t. I was right.
M: As great a guitar player as he is, B.B. King is an even greater singer, with a voice as tough and supple as any in blues. I met him once, years ago, and that thrill has never gone away.
76. Jerry Garcia
T: I was working as a cashier at the 69th St. Market, right up the street from the Tower Theatre where the Dead were playing in the mid-to-late 70’s. I had a little nametag with “Trip” on it. A Deadhead offered me five bucks for it (“cause, ya know, Jerry was “Captain Trips”). To this day I can’t believe I didn’t sell it.
M: Come on, folks. Keith Richards made a couple of nice solo records, but you don’t see me voting for him.
75. Marvin Gaye
T: The definitve soul man who left the 60’s Motown hit assembly line to create the wonderful and deeply personal What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On. Mixing the sacred and the profane with a huge helping of social consciousness, Marvin Gaye exposed the urban underbelly of the American Dream.
M: Only once in my life can I recall experiencing an anxiety attack. I immediately put on What's Going On and all was well.
74. Ella Fitzgerald
T: Listening to Ella leaves me Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered. Beee-yoo-ti-ful.
M: Her reading of Rodgers and Hart’s “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” is, hands down, one of my favorite musical moments of all time.
73. Jeff Buckley
T: His one fully realized album was a meandering, chaotic slab of semi-brilliant overreaching rock and roll. Possibly destined for greatness, his spot here owes more to leaving this mortal coil too soon than the actual music left behind.
M: Overrated? Here, for sure, but it’s hard to complain. The one full album he finished during his lifetime (Grace), impressive as it is, is not without its flaws. Still, “The Last Goodbye” and “Hallelujah” are so emotionally resonant, so sonically perfect, that it’s hard not to revere his talent.
72. The Smiths
T: Why do I think Johnny Marr and not Morrissey was the true creative spark in this band? And Morrissey’s no slouch. One of the greatest singles bands ever.
M: Their mope is the dope, and Johnny Marr was the kind of guitar hero I love best, one who serves the song and not the solo. His mind-bending layering of sound on “How Soon is Now?” makes it one of the great songs of its era.
71. The Police
T: Although they were slumming it when they aligned themselves with the punk/new wave brigade, let the record show their career evolved from the bracing rush of Outlandos d’Amour to the tasteful, smooth pop sheen of Synchronicity.
M: Like a handful of artists on the list, I found them least interesting when they were most successful. Before they completely conquered the world with Synchronicity, their marriage of third world and funk rhythms with heady melodies and vaguely punk aesthetics made for a uniquely intoxicating sound.
70. The Eagles
T: Hate ‘em if you must, those first four records are a high water of SoCal country rock. Hotel California, however, is probably most overrated record of the 70’s, if not the 20th century. It sucks.
M: The bane of my existence for much of my life, made worse by the sheer ubiquity of their music and the unctuousness of their personalities. Bland, soulless, cynical, and largely responsible for the commercial death of true country music. And in a minute, I’m gonna stop holding back . . . .