Counting down the 35 greatest rock performers
No music was ever more fun, or more explosive; no music ever took the world so much by surprise. In 1955, when it first rattled the pop charts, rock & roll seemed like nothing more than a teenage fad. Now, 35 years later, we know the truth: Rock brought popular music a double jolt of power and intelligence, creating a world in which our most forceful rockers may well be our sharpest social critics, even our most evocative prophets.
And yet rock & roll still is fun. In the following article we recall and weigh its first 35 years — what it was, what it’s become — and present our no-holds-barred ranking of its 35 greatest performers.
35 Rockers of Ages
If it were possible to compile a complete list of rock & Rollers — everyone who’s picked up a guitar before an audience or made a record in these 35 years — the entries would run into the millions. But only a few of those set the standards everyone else must live up to. Here are the 35 who, in our opinion, mattered most: those who started it all, those who challenged us most sharply, those who changed the course of the music, those who simply gave us the greatest pleasure.
1. The Rolling Stones
Where do you start with the (ahem) World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band? They’ve done so much, and they’ve done it better and longer than anybody else. Check out the songs: dozens upon dozens of anthems exploring degradation, lust, and the allure of the societal misfit. Look at the overall consistency: Last year’s reunion tour and album, Steel Wheels, won’t last the ages, but each was better than anyone had a right to expect and made rock maturity seem a viable concept. Think about the rhythm section, notably Charlie Watts’ jazz-rooted drumming. Then there are Keith Richards’ grungy guitar chords, which personify rock & roll all by themselves, and the opening riffs of ”(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” ”Brown Sugar,” and ”Gimme Shelter,” as well as the entirety of Exile on Main Street. Where to start about the Rolling Stones may be tough but ending is simple: They are the sound of rock. (Hey, and during his prime, the singer with the fat lips was pretty good, too.)
Essential album Hot Rocks 1964-1971 (Abkco)
2. Elvis Presley
He had more raw talent than anyone else, an incredible voice, effortless charisma, wicked good looks. On his very first records he forged, through sheer instinct, the burning fusion of country and R&B that lay at the heart of all the rock that followed. Then came stardom and the Army, and soon he sounded too much like Vegas and Hollywood, with clothes and hairstyle to match. But the world won’t forget his early work or the way its white-hot intensity kept flaring up — even at the end.
Essential album The Complete Sun Sessions (RCA)
3. Bob Dylan
Before him, rock lyricists never strived for more than a good rhyme; after him, they rarely settled for less. The Minnesota enigma’s power has deteriorated since the mid-’60s, but at his caustic peak he redefined cool and provided a ragged — and entirely appropriate — voice for a troubled generation in search of a sounding board.
Essential album Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia)
4. The Beatles
So why aren’t they No. 1? No band wrote better tunes or progressed so radically from charming simplicity to unprecedented sophistication. No band did a better job of keeping up with the times — or of forcing the times to keep up with them. But George’s play-by-numbers lead guitar and Ringo’s toy drumming, fine in the early years, just couldn’t maintain the pace. After the Fab Four stopped performing live in 1966, they became less like a group and more like four egos unable to — in their own words — let it be. Still, for sheer cultural impact, Beatlemania has never been surpassed, certainly not by the frenzy over New Kids.
Essential album Rubber Soul (Capitol)
5. Jimi Hendrix
Not only was he incomparable on the electric guitar — producing an astonishing range of sound, from deep blues to bombs bursting in air — he had the imagination and taste to match his awesome technique. He changed rock guitar for all time, and his work still sounds revolutionary today.
Essential album Electric Ladyland (Reprise)
6. James Brown
Truly the hardest-working man in show business, his sweat was never, ever cold. He boiled R&B down to its fundamental grittiness: a harsh, keening voice and churning, freight-train rhythm. Without him, funk as we know it would have been impossible.
Essential album Live at the Apollo, 1962 (Polydor)
7. Chuck Berry
With those classic guitar licks, that duckwalk, and those sassy lyrics, he wrote the opening chapters — if not the book — on rock & roll. After the early ’60s he became just another case of stunted growth. But until Jimi Hendrix erupted, Berry’s was the guitar sound to imitate, and his songs were the ones to master. Still are, in fact.
Essential album The Great Twenty-Eight (Chess/MCA)
8. Led Zeppelin
Sure, they invented heavy metal by pumping the blues up larger than life. But they also made the most varied art-rock of their day. Much of Zep’s oeuvre sounds even fresher now than it did when the band first recorded it in the ’70s, and as time passes, their standing just gets higher and higher. On rock’s 50th birthday, look for them in the all-time top 5.
Essential album Physical Graffiti (Swan Song/Atlantic)
9. The Velvet Underground
At the strung-out end of the flowery ’60s, this short-lived, Warhol-backed New York band plunged rock & roll deep into the dark side of life, with songs that took an unflinching look at sex and drugs. Their guitar squalor echoed in countless bands that followed, and by the ’80s those echoes could be heard even at the top of the charts. Let’s not forget their pioneering female drummer, either.
Essential album The Velvet Underground and Nico (Verve/PolyGram)
10. Marvin Gaye
He was the unsurpassed balladeer of soul, a sweet, crooning messenger of love. And then, in the early ’70s, his intensely personal insights into politics and sensuality redefined the Motown sound — and pop in general.
Essential album What’s Going On (Motown)
11. Aretha Franklin
No matter what Lady Soul is singing, you always hear the gospel truth. Her force-of-nature voice may be the purest instrument for rhythm & blues, even though for years it’s been mostly lost, or just mislaid, in empty attempts to follow pop-music trends.
Essential album Lady Soul (Atlantic)
12. Bruce Springsteen
With his almost spiritual ties to the blue-collar rock of the ’50s and ’60s, the Boss made an old-fangled pop style relevant again during the ’70s and ’80s. He’s too often overblown, but his exhaustive, occasionally exhausting, live shows more than compensate.
Essential album Born in the U.S.A. (Columbia)
Self-indulgent and narcissistic, he’s a jack-of-all-trades; only now is it clear he’s master of just a few. But you can’t ignore 1) his musical depth, 2) his pervasive influence on ’80s pop, 3) the in-your-face raunch of his early work, or 4) his quest for the perfect balance between God and all the women whose records he’s produced.
Essential album Dirty Mind (Warner Bros.)
14. The Sex Pistols
The shock troops of rock & roll, they spat upon the complacent music scene of the mid-’70s. No extreme was too extreme — and they lived their nihilism by angrily breaking up after only one album, at the height of their notoriety. Their stripped-down, pile-driving sound took rock back to its essence and paved the way for every no-nonsense band since.
Essential album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (Warner Bros.)
15. Neil Young
Part guitar hero, part quirky singer-songwriter, and unpredictable no matter what musical style he’s exploring this year. For anyone else, the primitive six-string work and creaky voice would be drawbacks, but Young makes them work to his advantage. An island unto himself, and bless him for it.
Essential album Decade (Reprise)
16. The Clash
”The only band that matters,” crowed CBS Records at the dawn of the ’80s. At the time, they were right; London Calling stands as one of the great rock albums of all time. Even more, the Clash’s prescient forays into rap and funk made them the one punk band that didn’t limit itself to gobbing onto its audience.
Essential album London Calling (Epic)
17. The Who
Few groups went so successfully from raw rock to epic, stadium-ready productions; few had a drummer who trashed his kit as musically as Keith Moon; none has ever had a guitar-smashing egghead like Pete Townshend. Too bad about that heavy-handed rock opera and those indecipherable concept albums.
Essential album Who’s Next(MCA)
18. David Bowie
He anticipated Prince’s gender-blending, prefigured Madonna’s tireless changing of costume, and grasped the power of video long before MTV. Maybe he didn’t have much to say, but he said it in such a stylish way — and beneath the flagrant image-mongering were fine pop songs.
Essential album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (Rykodisc)
Is there a better example of the importance of attitude in rock & roll? She has paraded a gallery of personas before us, dancing from controversy to outrage to blasphemy, and fascinating us every calculated step of the way.
Essential album Like a Virgin (Sire)
21. Otis Redding
A galvanic live performer with a voice that could cut steel, he perfected the steamy, grinding R&B that came out of Memphis. And he could also be delicate, in songs like ”Try a Little Tenderness” and ”(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” Essential album Live in Europe (Atco)
21. Eric Clapton
He was the first guitar god of the ’60s. Since his mid-’70s comeback, he’s been too tentative to grab the reins and make another major statement like Layla, but his guitar solos still burn with the intensity of the Mississippi Delta.
Essential album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (as part of Derek and the Dominos) (Polydor)
22. Sly and the Family Stone
Sly Stone had an integrated band before Prince, had the funk before George Clinton, and got married in Madison Square Garden before the Reverend Moon thought of staging weddings there. Before his burnout (still the most spectacular and depressing in rock) he wrote a string of sing-along singles as simple and catchy as nursery rhymes, and in all of them his message was positive and clear.
Essential album Greatest Hits (Epic)
The Beach Boys
On paper, the concept of this group seemed no more durable than the Twist — songs about surfing sung to choirboy harmonies and guitar licks stolen from the No. 7 man on this list. But they personified the good-time spirit of rock’s innocent era. Who knew they’d eventually lead us into a glorious psychedelic trip like ”Good Vibrations”?
Essential album Endless Summer (Capitol)
24. Stevie Wonder
Motown’s most ambitious talent belongs on this list for his songwriting alone: Who else could jump with so little apparent effort from the unaffected sentiment of ”You Are the Sunshine of My Life” to the gripping ghetto saga of ”Living for the City”?
Essential album Innervisions (Tamla)
25. Janis Joplin
Wailing, moaning, shrieking, she sang the blues as if they possessed her-and in the process she destroyed forever the stereotypical image of the sweet pop princess.
Essential album Cheap Thrills (Columbia)
26. Little Richard
He jump-started rock & roll with his driving piano and hair-raising screams. Since then no one has taken us higher. He never matched his brief flash of glory, but he may have been the first true genius of the music, even if he does say so himself.
Essential album Grooviest 17 Original Hits (Specialty)
27. George Clinton
James Brown and Sly Stone may have invented funk by boiling R&B down to its rhythmic core, but only Clinton made it a philosophy of life. In the ’70s, his albums with Parliament and Funkadelic gave black America its soundtrack. Now a whole new generation pays homage, as rappers borrow his jabbing beats for their rhymes.
Essential album Funkadelic, One Nation Under a Groove (Warner Bros.)
28. Michael Jackson
Never mind the 38 million copies of Thriller floating around the civilized world. Consider the dance steps, the impeccable polish of his sound, the cross-racial, cross-generational appeal of his music. And whatever you do, don’t forget how sweet and natural he was in his pre-oddball days.
Essential album Off the Wall (Epic)
29. Buddy Holly
He lived to record for only two years, yet he set mainstream rock & roll on the course followed in the ’60s by the Beatles and the Beach Boys. His light, easy style (crowned by the occasional sublime musical hiccup) took away the music’s threatening undercurrent without robbing it of its heart.
Essential album 20 Golden Greats (MCA)
30. Elvis Costello
The last convincing angry young man in rock, he single-handedly made the three-minute pop song hip once more and has secured a spot in history as the best lyricist since Dylan. He couldn’t sing, but gems like ”Alison” were so good it didn’t matter. Besides, he made eyeglasses cool again.
Essential album This Year’s Model (Columbia)
31. Public Enemy
Rap became the most important musical development of the ’80s, and this is its most important group. Public Enemy put its foot in its mouth more than once. ) But when it exhorts the masses over dense funk samples, you realize this is one rap crew that won’t end up on a sitcom — thank God.
Essential album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Def Jam)
32. Smoky Robinson
His achingly soft falsetto was perfect for his heartbreaking songs, and lots of the other Motown stars scored gold with his material too. Berry Gordy was the architect of the Motown sound; Robinson sketched in the details.
Essential album Smokey Robinson & the Miracles Anthology (Motown)
33. The Byrds
Vocal harmonies never sounded so ethereal; electric guitars never chimed so beautifully — nor have they since. These days, it’s common for rockers to experiment with country, bluegrass, and electrified folk. This seminal American rock & roll band did it first.
Essential album The Original Singles 1965-1967 (Columbia)
34. The Kinks
In the beginning was the riff, which they made one of rock & roll’s building blocks. And then there were the words: a respectable, if sometimes pretentious, attempt to create musical theater that gave rock lyrics a serio-comic respectability.
Essential album The Kinks Kronikles (Reprise)
35. The Supremes
The Cadillacs of Motown’s hit-making assembly line, they had mind-boggling statistics, including five consecutive No. 1 hits. Those harmonies, those hairstyles, that sense of lost innocence — gosh, we almost feel like crying.
Essential album The Supremes Anthology (Motown)