Monday, August 8, 2011

20 Greatest Music Acts: Global

WOW! Have had a record number of visits on my North American music post, and an almost equal amount of gripes. First of all, thanks for stopping by. Second of all, I respond to some of the points:

• The criteria may not be what you think it should be, but I had to set some parameters. Feel free to suggest improvements. Random carping, however, is only worth about 2 cents.
• Johnson points out that Willie Nelson should be on the list, and he is absolutely right.
• I’ve heard quite a bit of flak about Madonna’s exclusion, to which I say: she’s a singer/performer/entertainer, not a musician or composer. Sorry. As you can see, pop acts don’t score high on my list. They are what they are. Popularity, to me, does not equal importance.
• More on Madge: Citing her “influence” on female music doesn’t register with me because influencing a fresh wave of Britneys and Gagas is not really something that should be encouraged. Yes, she’s very successful, at times a sensation, and an excellent marketer and self-promoter. Hey, I own some of her music and have enjoyed watching her career. I just don’t take her very seriously.
• Some of the suggestions I’ve gotten I also cannot take too seriously. The Strokes? The Black Keys? Get back to me in 10 years. Love the Black Keys. But not top 20 worthy just yet.

Anyway, it’s been great fun. The good news is I don’t expect to generate as much argument with this next batch, because more than half of them will be on everyone’s list. I’ve added to each synopsis what I consider to be the bands’ essential work.

Let’s get to it.

1. The Beatles. Duh. This isn’t even close. Really, this list is “The Greatest of All Time, and everyone else.” Elvis was great, Dylan is great, but I don’t think anyone could ever be ahead of the Beatles. Rock started with the blues, before these guys were ever born. And they often said it was the sounds they heard coming from America that turned them on and got them to chase their musical dreams. They wound up changing the world socially, culturally, emotionally. Not a bad job for a career that lasted basically about seven years. But of course, it’s their music that opened all these doors. The Beatles were playing gigs 50 years ago and stopped recording together more than 40 years ago. Yet their music still sounds as invigorating, exciting and interesting now as it did billions of listens ago. How they started with “Please Please Me” and ended with “Get Back”… it’s astonishing, really. People who haven’t journeyed through their songbook recently need to remember that these guys could really rock. Listen to “Revolution” again. It stands up against anything. I could go on and on; even the things that the Beatles didn’t hit out of the park were still pretty good. “Penny Lane” (M calls it “Penny Lame”) is kind of…mediocre. But there isn’t a single Beatles album that isn’t great. I sincerely have a hard time respecting people who don’t worship the Beatles. I think they’re bigger than Jesus. Well…they’ve had a lot better albums. Essential Album: All of them, but if you pick one, it should be The Beatles (The White Album, for you people new to earth.)

2. Radiohead. I find these guys simply brilliant. For me, a true measure of the viability of a band is whether or not you have to have everything they release. Just about everyone on this list meets that criteria. Radiohead is impossible to categorize. Their music can sound familiar and unknowable at the same time. Instead of taking safe paths, they constantly go wherever their muse takes them. The growth curve from Pablo Honey to The Bends to OK Computer is startling…and then they took a hard left turn into outer space. Kid A and Amnesiac are like great works of art in that every time you hear them, you experience something fresh. Amazingly, their last three albums – The King of Limbs, In Rainbows and Hail to The Thief – are all incomparably brilliant. Essential Album: OK Computer. It will make you fitter, happier.

3. The Rolling Stones. Guess this means I’m old, but I remember a time when the Stones were considered more or less as “The Beatles, but with grit.” They never deserved to be in anyone’s shadow, but as part of the “British Invasion” of the 60s simply had to be labeled. It’s disappointing that they really haven’t released anything very good in 20-30 years, but I guess when you have an incredible 20-year run of winners you get a pass for diminishing returns. I love iTunes and iPods but the biggest reason the music business has fallen on hard times is precisely because the business now wants only hits. What used to be called a “deep album cut” could only be discovered by fans who bought (and listened to) an entire album. Now, people might be familiar with the opening and closing tracks of a Stones album like “Tattoo You” (the songs are, respectively, “Start Me Up” and “Waiting on a Friend”) but totally miss the boat on the disc’s other nine songs. Which means that most people have probably never heard nuggets like “Slave” or “Black Limousine.” That’s too bad. Those songs are rockers. One other thing that makes the Stones incredible: after founding member Brian Jones died, they went to the brilliant Mick Taylor, who left and was replaced by Ron Wood. Three huge personnel changes and the Glitter Twins kept hammering on. The Stones notched too many musical milestones to remember all of them: the guitar riff from “Satisfaction.” The sad beauty of “Wild Horses.” The funk of “Miss You.” The statements of derangement from Keith Richards on “Happy” or “Before They Make Me Run.” This is just a fraction of their output. The fact that they could be ranked as low as No. 3 only shows how great Radiohead is. They have to be! Essential Album: Tough, tough call, and many people would pick Exile on Main Street, but I’m going with 1969’s Let It Bleed. Nine amazing tracks, including a Robert Johnson cover and no less than FOUR immortal classics.

4. Pink Floyd. Talk about influence! Pink Floyd also weathered a key loss when founding member Syd Barrett got lost in a drug haze that, by many accounts, he never really came back from. Enter David Gilmour, who would more or less become the voice of the band and whose guitar virtuosity would largely define their sound. The band would go on to release two of the most lauded albums ever in “Dark Side of the Moon” (Note: Actually, it’s all dark.) and “The Wall.” In between came damn fine efforts in “Wish You Were Here” and “Animals.” Unfortunately, Roger Waters and Gilmour couldn’t get along and the band splintered. Pink Floyd became known for their trippy shows. Then again, people were doing an awful lot of drugs in the 70s, so that could have been a factor. Essential Album: It’s probably Dark Side of the Moon, but I’m going with “Wish You Were Here,” because it’s one of a very few albums that requires listening to the whole thing, in order, in one sitting.

5. Led Zeppelin. I was 10 years old, waiting for my parents to finish checking out, just inside the nearby Minyard Food Stores. This would have been in late 1969. The height of the hippie area. One hairy hippie walked in and saw another hairy hippie standing near the magazine racks.
HH1, to HH2: “Have you heard the new Zeppelin album?”
HH2: “No, man.”
HH1: “It’s heavy.”
That was the first time I’d ever heard of Led Zeppelin. And HH1 was right… they were heavy. Somehow they were considered a “metal” band, which makes no sense when you consider the number of exceptional, acoustic-based bluesy songs that made up such a big part of their catalog. Think “Goin to California” or “That’s The Way.” Or something like “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” which alternated between gentle acoustics and major jammage. LZ was a powerhouse and their first four albums are all must-haves. And then you’d better make sure and have their 1975 double, Physical Graffiti. Physical Graffiti was so amazing I developed a crush on a girl in high school, Deidra Sims, just because she said she liked the album. Anyway, Zep stormed through the 70s during a time when it was becoming plagued with light rock and disco. The burned out rather than faded away. Essential Album: You’ve pretty much got to say IV here, don’t you?

6. The Who: Pete Townshend is one of the most clever, tuneful writers ever. It’s too bad that he took his own joke (“The Who Sell Out”) and made it true. “My Generation” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” shouldn’t be used to sell sugar water or serve as a punch line for David Caruso (“The best there ever was.” – R.K.). The Who is all about power and intensity. It could be argued that the band in its prime consisted of the most manic guitarist, lead singer, bass player and drummer ever. Keith Moon (R.I.P.) may be the best rock drummer ever. He did things I’ve never heard done since. The Who also had an impressive run of three releases when sandwiching two-album “rock operas” Tommy and Quadrophenia around Who’s Next. Essential Album: As much as I want to go with Who’s Next or Quadrophenia, it’s Tommy. Like Dylan going electric or the Beatles turning into Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Townshend elevated the art form with this amazing journey.

7. U2. For years I was sure that the No. 2 spot on this list behind the Beatles would be U2. They’re incredibly talented. Miriam’s a little dismissive of them, and makes a valid point that they aren’t truly innovative. But people who cast U2 aside as pop fogies don’t realize that when these guys came around, disco’s body wasn’t fully cold. U2 emerged from the crowd categorized as punk or new wave, when they were neither. These were rockers, and what made them so fresh was the Edge’s monumental riffs. There are a few guitarists who are instantly recognizable strictly by their sound. Edge is one of them. Through the release of “Pop” I worshipped this band. I forgave them the slight misstep that was “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.” But their two releases in the last 11 years just don’t have that old mojo they used to have. These last two CDs were so pale compared to what had come before, I hardly listen to them. Essential Album: The Unforgettable Fire. I think because I saw them the first time of four while they were touring in support of this album. And I cannot ever forget their performance of “Bad” and Live Aid in 1985.

8. The Clash. I’m kind of bending my own rules here, since it could be argued they had a short shelf life: six studio releases, the last of which shouldn’t count because it was post-breakup. However, London Calling was a double album, Sandinista was a TRIPLE album, and that makes nine discs total. Hedge! As the 70s wound down and the next wave came, British bands like The Clash, the Police, U2, Elvis Costello were initially labeled punk. This is obviously laughable now as all of these groups were too tuneful and versatile to just be that. The Clash did an incredible job of venturing into different sounds that made them way too interesting to be a simple punk band. Thinking about them and the split between Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, and the fact that a lot of bands wind up breaking apart due to tensions among members makes me wonder about that dynamic. What is it that makes these artists so irritable with one another? It’s a shame. In some cases it seems that the energy burns so hot that it just can’t last. Perhaps that’s so with The Clash. They were something. I saw them play in a bowling alley on the Combat Rock tour. In fact, I got fired from a job because I chose to go to that concert. Good choice. Essential Album: Gotta go with Sandinista. It’s kind of a cheat, because that gives you 36 songs to listen to. But it also showcased the sonic capabilities and imagination these guys had.

9. David Bowie. The chameleon of rock. It takes years to appreciate Bowie. He would adopt a persona, play it to the hilt, then lose that skin he was imprisoned in and become something totally different. From Brit crooner to androgynous rocker to King (or queen?) of Glam to Techno pioneer to Thin White Duke to soul man… it seemed like every album he followed a new path. It made for some exciting music and was always worth keeping up with. He also was one of the first to recognize the potential of a hot young guitarist from Texas named Stevie Ray Vaughan, who performed all the best guitar licks on the Let’s Dance album. Bowie usually released an album that was years ahead of its time. He hardly gets any credit for this. He’d release an album, and two or three years later everyone was making the same kind of music. By then he would have moved on to the next thing that interested him. It was uncanny, really. A visionary talent. Sound and visionary, actually. Essential Album: A toughie. I really loved Station to Station, I think it’s his most intense, rocking album. But let’s go with The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust. It probably represents the most accurate picture of what Bowie was all about.

10. The Verve. Here’s where I catch grief on my list. I almost missed The Verve entirely. Now I find them indespensable. With four traditional releases and what amounts to a couple of EPs, the Verve’s star burned out pretty fast. I read somewhere that “Urban Hymns” was the album that U2 wished they had released, and I thought that was dead on. The Verve was able to create a huge sound similar to what the Edge creates for U2, but without the bombast that has marked U2’s stuff for a long time now. I got turned on to The Verve in reverse; after falling in love with Urban Hymns – the only misstep on the album is the mopey dirge “The Drugs Don’t Work” – I listened to their second album, “A Northern Soul.” I came to think it was better than Urban Hymns. Then I listened to their first album, “A Storm In Heaven.” Their best. After a row split them up for 10 years, they got together in 2008 to release “Forth” and it was an incredible treat to hear them again. Frontman Richard Ashcroft has a couple of nice solo efforts, too. Miriam was able to find a bunch of rare stuff and B-sides that are also eminently likeable. Listen to these guys. You can thank me later. Essential Album: Urban Hymns. Mostly because it is their most accessible (i.e., it has “the hit,” “Bittersweet Symphony”).

11. PJ Harvey. My last list, I got grief for no women being on it. Well, now I will get grief for putting this woman on it. I don’t care. To me PJ Harvey is the most compelling, literate and hardest-rocking female musician ever. And I say this after finally seeing her in concert at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco in April, where she played a very low-key, short set. It was still great. Back when there were these things called “record stores” you would go into a place and often they would be playing a new release. Such was the case in 1993 when I heard “Rid of Me” at a Sound Warehouse on Greenville Avenue in Dallas. I bought that CD immediately and have been a big fan ever since. PJ is schizo; on recent release she sounds sedate and plaintive. On some release she seems like a voracious predator. In interviews she seems like a little old lady. It’s very hard to try and describe her music because she has tried on so many personas. I think that’s part of the appeal, actually. In fact, if you’ll notice, I tend to value bands that have more versatility and take more chances over one-trick ponies. You’ve got to keep moving. Essential Album: To Bring You My Love, narrowly, over Uh Huh Her.

12. Eric Clapton. EC is one of those guys who I’ve gone back and forth with over the years. For a long time, I thought he was overrated. Then I realized how great he was and appreciated his love of the blues and the things he did to keep them vital. Then he hit a period of more popularity but creatively, his work wasn’t as compelling in the 80s and 90s as it had been in the 60s and 70s. So even though he’s kind of disappeared for a long time, the early stuff was so good that it can’t be denied. He’s God, you know. Essential Album: 461 Ocean Boulevard. You’ll get a real good feeling.

13. Black Sabbath. The original metal band. Their first five albums were mind-blowing; after that, they (to me) were mostly crap. But the came onto the scene and terrified old people and created a legion of fans culled from the ample supply of disaffected youth. In the 70s you had kids who listened to Led Zeppelin and thought it’d be cool to read “Lord of the Rings” and play “Dungeons & Dragons.” And you had another set that listened to Black Sabbath and thought it’d be cool to throw bottle rockets at each other and investigate the fine arts of mayhem. I think that Black Sabbath were the fathers of punk, in a way. Ozzy Osbourne now is seen as a kind of loveable loony old fart; to the powers that be in the early 70s, he was considered a dangerous threat who might get your kids into Satanism. Ridiculous, but at the same time, the band played the card they were dealt and milked the “Prince of Darkness” hype as long as they could. Essential Album: Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.

14. Queen. Mention Queen today and there are about 6 billion people on the planet who will immediately think of either “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Or “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” Or “We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions.” Or “Under Pressure.” And there are others. That’s a powerful legacy, especially for a band that was pretty much done in the U.S. after 1980 (although they had five more platinum or multi-platinum releases in the UK afterward). The band was definitely done after frontman Freddie Mercury died of complications from AIDS in 1991 at age 45. Mercury’s name should never be mentioned without the word “flamboyant” lurking nearby. Look at the list of those hits above, all of them 30 or more years old. That they’ve remained relevant for so long should speak to the talent of this band that even in its heyday didn’t receive the sort of critical appreciation that they deserved. A Wiki entry estimates their record sales at 150 million on the low end to as many as 300 million. Mercury was the face of the band, but guitarist Brian May should not be forgotten. Essential Album: Get over yourself and listen to all of News of the World in one sitting. I challenge you not to be impressed.

15. Elton John. Speaking of queen… Nah, too easy. That said, consider the bravery of not just Freddie Mercury, but Elton John. Even in 2011, there remains a lot of resistance to accept gays in society. Discrimination has always been stupid, but in the 70s and 80s it was even worse for gays, blacks, Hispanics… and probably gays had it worse. So for Elton to triumph in such a huge way against such bias is pretty cool. Starting with his eponymous second album released in 1970 and continuing for nine more albums over the next six years (an astonishingly prolific pace), Elton John fairly ruled the early 70s. In rock circles it seemed like a piano-led act might not have much staying power… you’ve heard of guitar gods but not piano gods, right? The fact that Elton could consistently rock with a piano was fairly new (and no, I haven’t forgotten Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis or Ray Manzarek). Elton’s great songwriting partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin made them both millionaires many times over. However, points off to Taupin for writing the lyrics to Jefferson Starship’s “We Built This City.” God I hate that song. Essential Album: Honky Chateau. An strong argument could be made for Goodbye Yellowbrick Road but I think Chateau really put Elton on the map.

16. Dire Straits. I love my brother, but honestly, a lot of his taste in music could be better. Having said that, he discovered Dire Straits first. I’ll always give him credit for that. Part of what makes music so interesting is that really there shouldn’t be that much possibility in it. A few notes, a few instruments… how can there be so many new combinations? And how is it that rock guitarists are able to carve out such distinctive sounds? The greats all seem to find some untapped vein. Mark Knopfler’s sound is like a southern drawl. It’s bluesy but not sad. Essential Album: Communique. Put this on, pop open a cold beverage or two, and curl up for a sunset with someone you really like.

17. Fleetwood Mac. Are you putting a band together? Watch the chemistry, and the chemicals. In Fleetwood Mac you didn’t even need groupies to have sex, drugs and rock and roll. Read a history of this band and you’ll be impressed that with all the internal love affairs going on and the substance abuse they were able to make a stretch of fantastic albums. (NB: Two women in the band! Also NB: Stevie Nicks was ridiculously hot, even with all her weird-ass witchy shit.) Clearly there was a lot of energy going around. With Fleetwood Mac in 1975 and Rumours in 1977, the band sold almost 25 million records in the U.S. You’ve probably got one or both in your collection. Which means you bought a lot of Stevie Nicks’ cocaine. One thing interesting about Fleetwood Mac is that they had a lot of talent; hit songs were written by Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie. Essential Album: Rumours.

18. AC/DC. Thank you, Australia, for these guys. Listen, outside of the fact that they’re the first (and perhaps only) hard-rocking band to make bagpipes sound right for a rock song (“It’s A Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock n Roll”), AC/DC is basically everything that rock is about: They’re loud. They’re aggressive. Chasing girls and partying are concepts that are right in their wheelhouse. AC/DC is not high-brow in any way. But they’re a helluva lot of fun. The formula worked so well that after losing their original lead singer Bon Scott to “death by misadventure” (could be drink; could be drugs; either way, dead at 33 after five albums), the band replaced Scott with Brian Johnson and went on to sell another 50 million albums stateside. Essential Album: Highway to Hell – Scott’s last with the band.

19. Peter Gabriel. I might have him rated higher if he had not founded Genesis, which, when he left, foisted Phil Collins on the world. As a solo artist Gabriel explored a variety of interesting avenues. It was sometimes a little weird (“Moribund the Burgermeister”) but most of the time it was smart, interesting and challenging music. Gabriel wrote about alienation (“Mother of Violence,” “Here Comes the Flood”), repression (“Biko,” “San Jacinto”), and despair (“Don’t Give Up). He also wrote huge pop hits like “Sledgehammer” and “In Your Eyes.” In 1992, with the album Us he spoke about myriad problems in personal relationships then backed it with a tour that was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen for combining technology and music. Essential Album: Us. Actually, I’d choose Plays Live first, but if you’re looking at a studio album, go with Us.

20. Coldplay. Only five albums into their career, their inclusion here might be a little premature. However, they’ve already sold 70 million albums and really haven’t had a hiccup along the way. They rub some people wrong because they sometimes seem a little too earnest. Essential Album: Parachutes.

So there you have it. Let me hear from ya…

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