Saturday, August 6, 2011

20 Greatest Music Acts: North America

Everyone loves lists. They make excellent fodder for discussion.

Many moons ago I had a fun post about the best rock bands of all time. These things always irritate someone when their favorite act is overlooked. This is a two-parter; Today we talk about the greatest North American artists.

First, some parameters:
• The band has to have a strong catalog of work. That means amazing acts like Nirvana, who would be worthy based on its quality, is out because there’s simply not the longevity of sustained greatness.
• The act has to have some cultural significance or otherwise registers as a game-changer. That means bonus points if people riot over your work, or if your story is generally compelling.
• The more of everything you do, the more cred. In other words, if you’re a great singer but don’t play or write music, points off.
• Capped at 20. This is where the work is. It’s real easy to just list the bands you like. But trying to use some criteria and keep it strictly to 20 is brutal. Try it!

In fact, I’d love to develop a consensus. So consider this your chance to list your top 20. Please give me your list, and comments, and let’s see what happens.

1. Bob Dylan: If Jim Morrison was the Lizard King, Dylan’s the chameleon. For half a century he has blazed new trails and written tuneful poetry. He’s a giant, and quite possibly the greatest American artist of all. Think of this: the biggest hit Jimi Hendrix is known for is a Dylan song.
2. Neil Young: My second-most favorite Canadian is one of the most electrifying performers I have ever seen. Neil’s getting up there in age; if you haven’t seen him live, please take the next opportunity to do so. Like Dylan, he’s also written some of the most important and meaningful songs (Ohio, Rockin’ in the Free World, Powderfinger, After the Gold Rush come to mind) in rock history.
3. My Morning Jacket: I think of these guys as the American Radiohead. They’re completely underappreciated despite widespread critical acclaim. And in concert, no one I’ve seen ever gives more. I’ve seen some good acts… 11 on this list, eight from the “Glaring Omissions” section, and nine of the global acts (see next entry). Only Neil Young has come close to matching the Jacket concert experience. They’re too good to not be filthy rich. But on the plus side, it means I don’t have to pay ridiculous ticket prices to sit a half-a-mile from the stage in a football stadium to hear them.
4. Jimi Hendrix: Jimi’s loss tore a hole in the lineage of amazing black guitar heroes begun by Robert Johnson, passed on to Chuck Berry and then Jimi. It took a slew of Isley Brothers before Prince came along and picked up the mantle. Jimi’s career was way too short, so short in fact that I kind of fudged my own parameters to keep him on the list. We should have had many more years from him, and from…
5. The Doors: When Morrison died, that was it. Some bands can weather a key loss (The Who, Led Zeppelin) and some cannot. As talented as Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger and John Densmore are, and as much as they contributed to this band’s never-matched sound, Morrison was the Doors. Like with Hendrix, can you imagine what we would have heard if these guys had lived longer?
6. Public Enemy: Unfortunately, PE showed us how high rap could reach. The fact that they did it with Flavor Flav clowning around is a testament to Chuck D’s enormous leadership and talent. This isn’t meant as a slap at Flav: the guy was an essential part of PE and a true talent in his own right. It’s a shame PE isn’t working any more.
7. Talking Heads: The funkiest, quirkiest, most innovative band to emerge from the 70s and 80s. Music was splitting off into factions: punk, new wave, disco, plus the enduring standbys. The Heads were not only able to venture into all these areas but were one of if not the first bands to introduce so-called “World Music” into the mix. Innovators who still sound fresh 30 years later.
8. Prince: His name is Prince, and he is funky. I was a DJ at a college radio station when he and Michael Jackson the solo artist were just getting started. I predicted that Prince would be bigger than Michael. Except for sales, I was right. Prince is a damned good player, composer and performer. He’s probably too high on this list but I remain a huge fan.
9. Elvis Presley: Elvis didn’t write any of his hits. His 50s songs were groundbreaking because of his great voice and his societal impact. Keep in mind that in this deeply historically racist country, he was reviled for singing “Negro music.” Today, that term should be changed to simply “Good music.” Elvis changed everything. He was the guy who British teenagers named Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Starr, Jagger, Richards, et al all heard and decided that music was the thing they wanted to do. Elvis is everywhere.
10. The Eagles: While they haven’t really done much in 30 years, their impact is still being felt. All modern country music today is basically what the Eagles invented 40 years ago.
11. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band: He’s the Boss.
12. James Brown: The Godfather of Soul was a better showman than Chuck Berry, a better singer than Little Richard, funkier and more soulful than any of the Motown stars.
13. Stevie Wonder: The musical genius is somehow kind of forgotten these days. The changes in his music were as stark and pronounced as those between the Beatles of 1962 and the Beatles of 1969. He wrote everything, he PLAYED everything, and he spoke with a voice that chronicled the American struggle of the 60s and early 70s. A giant.
14. Alice Cooper: The first shock rocker not only opened the door for countless imitators, but he also happened to be a damn fine songwriter.
15. Beastie Boys: When Licensed To Ill was released, these guys seemed a bit of a joke. A rocking, rapping joke, but a joke. I thought they might be a little bit better of a novelty act than Weird Al Yankovic or Rick Dees. Wrong! The Beasties are the white equivalent of Public Enemy.
16. Beck: Beck Hansen takes chances, and mostly they pan out. Very, very underrated, but not by me.
17. Stevie Ray Vaughan: OK, this is a sentimental pick. I couldn’t be subjective. SRV kept the blues alive. Not the glossy stuff like Jonny Lang, the real, gritty stuff like Muddy, the Wolf, Robert Johnson. SRV lived the blues, which all the greats do. Unfortunately he died them too.
18. Steely Dan: Proof that clever has a place in rock. Yes, they’re a little slick, but lyrically about as witty as it gets.
19. Ryan Adams: This guy is another under-the-radar type who should be a much bigger star than he is. Prolific and smart.
20. Aerosmith: Probably my iffiest pick because they became a caricature in later years, almost a Spinal Tap. Steven Tyler is insufferable. Why are they this high? Anyone?

Below is a list of “Glaring Omissions” that I considered for the list, as well as a brief summation of why I don’t think they rate. But there’s one other thing about the above list: The lack of women… here’s why I shot them all down:
Motown/60s girl groups: I love the Supremes and the Ronettes, but I just don’t feel like they rank. Sorry.
Janis Joplin: Sample too limited, range pretty narrow. It’s also why I don’t like Gale Sayers being in the NFL Hall of Fame.
Patti Smith: Same reason that I didn’t include Lou Reed or the Velvet Underground in my top 20. Someone in the world is the best at performing yo-yo tricks. That doesn’t mean they’re worthy of being in this crowd.
Heart: A contender, but after a few sizzling albums in the 70s they also kind of fizzled.
Blondie: A lot of fun, and probably actually the most deserving of inclusion, because they not only combined the best of the New Wave/Punk/Post-Disco styles, but also were an early conduit for bringing rap into the mainstream. Hmmm… maybe this is No. 21
Madonna: Slick, sexy and successful, but she’s just a pop star. You’ll notice that Michael Jackson didn’t make my list, either. And he’s not slick or sexy. But these two sold a ton of records.
No Doubt/Gwen Stefani: This was one of my last cuts. I just think Stefani is incredibly talented and has managed to carve out a strong career in a supremely male-dominated world on her own terms. I can listen to her solo stuff and No Doubt all day. She’s just got it. No Doubt’s reunited for an album and a tour and I’m interested in both.

Glaring Omissions (in alphabetical order)
Allman Brothers: I love these guys, and they are the best of the “Southern rock” genre. I was lucky to see them play in 1974, and they not only created a musical niche but also did their part to keep the blues alive. But after a powerful early 70s run, apart from some nice solo work by Gregg Allman, they haven’t done anything.
The Beach Boys: Pretty sure everyone would want them on the top 20 list. My question: Why? They perfected surf music and had dreamy harmonies and some killer hits. Most of them almost 50 years ago. And they never really evolved.
Boston: Seriously would never consider them a top 20 band. Two epic albums and nothing else.
Buddy Holly & the Crickets: Had Buddy lived longer, it’s quite possible he’d have had a ridiculously famous career. And he’d probably be pissed a loon like Gary Busey portrayed him onscreen. His songs were pop heaven and unforgettable. But the canon is just too small.
Creedence Clearwater Revival: Another band with not enough catalog, but what they had was spectacular. John Fogerty has an all-time great rocker voice.
Dave Matthews Band: DMB fans are like Deadheads or Parrotheads or Phish fans. Which is to say, they are passionate and devoted to pretty average musical acts. A lot of DMB stuff is good, but after a while it all seems to sound the same.
Eminem: A pretty talented rapper, the Great White Hope. I like his stuff. Just not enough for this weight class.
Grateful Dead: I had a great time at a Dead show decades ago in their heyday. But I didn’t have to pay for the ticket or I wouldn’t have gone. I just never got them.
Green Day: These guys are better than I thought they would ever be when they first hit the scene. But they’re not quite top 20 material.
The Isley Brothers: At the My Morning Jacket show in KC on Aug. 3, 2011, I was shocked and thrilled to hear among the pre-show music the Isleys classic “Footsteps in the Dark.” After the death of Jimi and before Prince, these guys kept the black rocker reputation going in a time when the biggest black acts were churning out disco. I always loved this band and never felt they’ve gotten their due.
Jay-Z: The King. Just not quite top 20.
Metallica: Drone, drone, drone, drone. These guys are the metal Chicago. Everything sounds like everything else they’ve ever done.
Nirvana: If only… it seemed like their potential was unlimited. Think about it – the perceived least-talented guy in the band now has a huge career with the Foo Fighters. Kurt Cobain’s death was a huge, huge loss.
Pearl Jam: I like this band but feel like they always kind of sound the same. It’s Eddie. I like Eddie, but here’s where I figured this out… when the band worked with Neil Young on Mirror Ball, they didn’t use Eddie on any of the lead vocals.
The Pretenders: Maybe the hardest-rocking female-led band of all time, but not enough of a sample. Plus the two times I saw them, Chrissie Hynde used the same stage patter and it really disappointed me that she had a rehearsed line.
Rage Against the Machine: I saw them open for U2 on the Pop tour and they rocked so hard I wondered if U2 might want to cancel the show. A pretty tough act to follow. Intensity, thy name is Rage.
The Ramones: Another band I was lucky enough to see. They played 20 songs in about 45 minutes. Kinda hilarious, actually. Clearly lead dogs bringing punk to the states, and it was so needed at the time, because disco was killing music. The mid 70s were a pretty dreary time. However, I didn’t elevate them to top 20 because they were pretty one-note musically. Literally. Gabba Gabba Hey!
R.E.M.: I own several of their albums but I’m not sure I am a fan. I still can’t explain this.
Santana: I can’t forgive him for “Smooth.” But in the late 60s/early 70s, he was incredible. Still one of the best guitarists going, but he’s kind of faded.
Paul Simon/Simon & Garfunkel: What a career Paul Simon has had. He’s created highly listenable music for almost half a century and made Art Garfunkel a star. That’s talent.
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers: This was a conflicted choice not to include Petty in the top 20. I think the problem for me is that after an astonishing 10-year run, he’s kind of receded into the background.
Van Halen: I’m a bit of a fan, but these guys were never contenders to make my top 20. Plus, Eddie broke Valerie Bertinelli’s heart, so he’s dead to me. Guys would have crawled over cut glass to kiss her boot and he just wasted it.
War: Love, love this band. They’re kind of forgotten now but they were enormous in the 70s and brought a lot of funk. Plus as a multi-racial band they set a good example.
Frank Zappa: We miss you, Frank. The guy was a jokester but a champion for artistic and creative freedom. Like Yoko Ono, he was way, way ahead of his time.
ZZ Top: These guys probably wouldn’t surface on anyone’s top 20, but as a native Texan who saw them four times and was pleased every time, I remain a fan.

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