100 Greatest Artists – Rolling Stone
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100 Greatest Artists

The Beatles, Eminem and more of the best of the best

Best Artists of all time 100 Rolling Stone

Rolling Stones in London circa 1960s.


In 2004 — 50 years after Elvis Presley walked into Sun Studios and cut “That’s All Right” — Rolling Stone celebrated rock & roll’s first half-century in grand style, assembling a panel of 55 top musicians, writers and industry executives (everyone from Keith Richards to ?uestlove of the Roots) and asking them to pick the most influential artists of the rock & roll era. The resulting list of 100 artists, published in two issues of Rolling Stone in 2004 and 2005, and updated in 2011, is a broad survey of rock history, spanning Sixties heroes (the Beatles) and modern insurgents (Eminem), and touching on early pioneers (Chuck Berry) and the bluesmen who made it all possible (Howlin’ Wolf).

The essays on these top 100 artists are by their peers: singers, producers and musicians. In these fan testimonials, indie rockers pay tribute to world-beating rappers (Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig on Jay-Z), young pop stars honor stylistic godmothers (Britney Spears on Madonna) and Billy Joel admits that Elton John “kicks my ass on piano.” Rock & roll is now a music with a rich past. But at its best, it is still the sound of forward motion. As you read this book, remember: This is what we have to live up to.


Talking Heads

By Dave Sitek 

When I was a kid, I was really into hardcore punk. Hardcore was very rigid. Talking Heads was the first band I remember telling my punk friends about, saying, "Yo, check this out! This four-chord thing we're doing? We're missing out on something!"

The first song I really liked was "Once in a Lifetime." MTV had just started to sink its claws into people, and that song was like an anthem for coked-up adults trying to make sense of their world. Remain in Light was this combination of ambient music and strong lyrics and incredibly inventive percussion and bass parts. I was a kid, but I still thought, "I should have been involved in that record!" It's amazing.

They had so many things going on. If you listen to a Talking Heads bass line, you think the song's going one way, and then you listen to the drums and you think it's going a different way, and then you listen to David Byrne's lyrics and you're like, "This is a completely different song from what I thought it was going to be." And then the guitars come in, and then the ambience comes in — it's like several songs all blending into one. If Talking Heads were around a cool idea, they would make it their own. I feel like they saw Brian Eno, their producer, as another instrument.

The town that I grew up in was called Columbia, in Maryland. It was a planned community with man-made lakes. David Byrne's parents lived there for a while. It presented this facade that everything around us is solid and real and going to be here forever, even though we know we created it. Byrne's lyrics spoke to the artifice of the American landscape. The American Dream has a lot of back alleys, and he was showing those things, and I felt like, here's a guy trying to talk to me about something I had seen firsthand.

I think the artist's primary responsibility is to reflect what life was like in their time. Talking Heads did that. I'm all over the map emotionally and spiritually, like most people are, so different Talking Heads records speak to me at different times, but with Remain in Light and Fear of Music, the grit of modern living is there. What they're addressing still applies.

They weren't always complex, either — there's some stuff where it's just bare-bones essentials. "This Must Be the Place" is probably one of the most important songs in my entire life. I find the lyrics really calming. The song is simple, but when you look at all the elements and how they're put together and where the downbeat is, it's kind of … clever is not even really the word. Genius, maybe?


Carl Perkins

By Tom Petty 

Carl Perkins' songs will outlive us all. On tracks like "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Honey Don't!" he took that country-picking thing into the rock world. He was an amazing guitar player: If you want to play Fifties rock & roll, you can either play like Chuck Berry, or you can play like Carl Perkins.

Considering how important he is to rock history, many people don't know about him. But the right people did. The Beatles covered five of Carl's songs on record. Carl was actually there in the studio when the Beatles cut some of them. Listen to the guitar break in "All My Loving": George Harrison told me that the Beatles would study the B sides of Carl's records to learn everything they could from him.

Carl was the real deal — a true rockabilly cat. He told me about picking cotton when he was a kid and learning the blues from an older black field hand he knew. Carl would go home from the fields, be practicing a Roy Acuff country type of thing on his guitar, and then he would start bending the notes. He told me his father would actually get mad, saying, "Play that thing right, boy, or don't play it at all." But it was organic with Carl. He took it to the honky-tonks — the real honky-tonks where people would be drinking out of a jug. It sounds like a cliché now, that rock music was born out of cornfields and honky- tonks, but with Carl it was all true.

He didn't get the breaks he deserved; hard luck seemed to follow him around. He had a terrible car crash on the way to The Ed Sullivan Show when "Blue Suede Shoes" was breaking really big. Elvis ended up covering the song and took a lot of the glory there. Some people might not know that Carl played guitar with Johnny Cash for 10 years on the road. At a certain point in the Sixties, things got tough for Carl — he had a drinking problem, which he eventually overcame — and he went back into the lead-guitar business.

Carl himself was a very bright guy, and very funny. He once told me, "Tom, I like you so much — if I lived by you, I'd cut your grass." That warmth and wit came through in his music. He was not the kind of guy to blow his own horn; he was very humble. When we did a long stand at the Fillmore in the late Nineties, I talked Carl into sitting in with us. Backstage, Carl was very nervous about coming out with us. He said, "They may not know who I am." I told him, "Carl, they're going to know you and love you." When Carl hit the stage, he just ripped the room apart. Neil Young was there that night, and he was shaking his head. Carl was that good.


Curtis Mayfield

By Boz Scaggs 

If, in the late Fifties and early Sixties, you were drawn to that place on the AM radio dial where the rhythms, the grooves and the beautiful sounds of African-American soul were playing, you would have found Curtis Mayfield. Many of us first heard him as backing vocalist in the Impressions behind Jerry Butler, singing "For Your Precious Love." But he really came into focus in Butler's next big hit, "He Will Break Your Heart," which was written by Mayfield and features his strumming electric guitar to a saucy tango beat that you can hear echoing in Ben E. King's "Spanish Harlem."

After that he was front and center, singing the lead about a "Gypsy Woman" in an exotic brew of castanets and dark minor chords. At one point, after the lyric "She danced around and round to a guitar melody," he fired off an accent on his guitar that resonated for years for many of us who tried to emulate him — she cast her spell and he followed, with the rest of us close behind. You can clearly hear his influence in the monumental "Little Wing," by Jimi Hendrix.

But it was his voice that reached the higher ground. It burned with the abandon of the blues singer and an almost feminine longing, at once powerful and deeply personal. Women responded overwhelmingly to his profoundly respectful and sensitive approach. When he sang "The Wonder of You," the vulnerability and passion got in real close. They knew he knew.

At first, he made a gospel-like call to rise up, get on board, get ready. "I know you can make it," he exhorted to soul-stirring harmonizing. He later took the voice of activism, calling out diseases of urban America and challenging people to see what was going on, a plea Marvin Gaye would take up, too. The full range of his powers can be heard in the soundtrack to Superfly. It hits you in waves: driving rhythms with brass and strings countered by down-in-the-alley funk.

He was a dynamic performer right up until he was disabled in an accident onstage in New York in 1990. I only met him once, after a show in San Francisco. He was funny, gracious to all, had a beautiful smile and a genuine way about him — a gentle and humble man at heart.



By Colin Meloy 

I first heard R.E.M. in 1986, a song tacked on to the end of a demos collection of a Eugene, Oregon, band that my uncle, then in school at U of O, sent to me for Christmas. The song was called "Superman," a bit of meticulously crafted bubblegum that was so simple and honest and funny that my entire nascent library of cassettes (chiefly: Yaz, Scritti Politti and Depeche Mode) seemed to be rendered obsolete in the span of the track's three minutes. I was fully hooked. Little did I know: Becoming enamored with indie bands in Helena, Montana, in the late 1980s was kind of like developing a taste for beluga caviar in rationing-era postwar Britain.

By the time Lifes Rich Pageant was gracing the yellow Sony Sports boomboxes of the world, R.E.M. was totally a going concern. The following year brought Document, and that landed them a video on MTV, even. Still, in Helena, being an R.E.M. fan meant being part of a tiny community. A community that, as far as I could tell, consisted of exactly one person. Then Green came around, and suddenly this band was on a major label, playing arenas, and every human in America with two ears and access to radio was being demanded to "Stand." I listened to Chronic Town — procured on a recent family vacation to Los Angeles — on my Walkman backstage during rehearsal for the school production of Guys and Dolls, rehearsing the conversation in my head:

"What are you listening to?" they'd ask.

"R.E.M.," I'd reply.

"Oh — they do that song 'Stand.'"

"Yeah," I'd reply casually, "I'm not really into that song — this is their first EP. It's, like, from 1982."

It was well-rehearsed, but it never actually happened. I had to suffer the philistines — stealing my band — silently. But still: To be an ardent R.E.M. fan, happy to venture beyond the pale of the radio singles, was a rare thing. Middle school was brutal for me, and I clung to my music like a life raft. Murmur, Reckoning … even Dead Letter Office, with its beer-soaked goofs and discarded B sides, provided a much-needed insulation against the cruel, Queensrÿche-and-Garth-Brooks-listening world. "When I was young and full of grace/And spirited, a rattlesnake/When I was young and fever fell/My spirit? I will not tell…." However inscrutable Michael Stipe's lyrics were, they always gave language to this weird, agonizing metamorphosis taking place in my head. I was desperately searching for like-minded kids, but with every semester that went by, I felt like my isolation only grew.

My parents, at a loss, suggested I get involved in the local community theater's after-school program. I was initially skeptical, but I agreed to give it a shot. As I climbed the stone steps toward the theater's entrance, the doors flew open and out walked a girl I'd never seen before — someone from the high school, maybe — wearing a gauzy sundress and a notable lack of hair spray in her long hair. But the thing that caught my eye: She was wearing a Fables of the Reconstruction T-shirt. I was floored. She smiled shyly — probably more embarrassed at my gaping than anything — and walked by.

I'd been given the signal. A wayward fugitive, stumbling through the door of some Provençal cafe, his hat and coat soaking wet from the journey. The customers turn and look, each more untrusting than the next. Till a flash of a badge or the wave of a ribbon can be seen from the farthest table, and he knows: This is it. You're in the resistance now, son.


Diana Ross and the Supremes

By Antonio "L.A." Reid 

For almost 30 years — my entire career, really — all I've been doing is trying to discover another Diana Ross. I obviously still have my work cut out for me. She was gorgeous and skinny — and this was back in the Twiggy days, when skinny was new — and she had that big, beautiful hair. And, of course, she was glamorous: I remember all those furs, diamonds and early bling-bling. Everything about her — her mannerisms, her look, her aura — exuded stardom.

The Supremes were the epitome of the Motown sound. People look at Ross and say she had great songs, she was a good-looking girl, behind her she had Berry Gordy — who, in my book, is the greatest record man who ever lived — she had all these things. Holland, Dozier and Holland were amazing songwriters, just pure melody men. As we all know now, the unsung heroes were the Motown house band, the Funk Brothers. They could take those great songs and give them sound. "Where Did Our Love Go," "Baby Love," "Come See About Me," "Stop! In the Name of Love," "I Hear a Symphony" — at the time, people thought those songs were disposable. And now we realize that they're true masterpieces. They're so alive. Everything about the songs was great, even the intros — every one of them had a distinctive, memorable intro, which was a hook in and of itself. And, of course, there were two other wonderful singers in the Supremes, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard.

But at the end of the day, Diana Ross' voice would come on the air and give you chill bumps. It had such presence, terrific tone, and was so identifiable. She didn't sing like Aretha Franklin — she wasn't a gospel singer — but she was a stylist, and you always believed her. She was captivating, romantic. When she asked, "Where did our love go?" she sounded like she was begging.

To this day, I believe that her voice could work on contemporary radio. She set the road map for the success of Janet Jackson, Madonna — anybody who could sing but wasn't a real crooner like Aretha or Patti LaBelle or Gladys Knight. I still ask artists in the studio to "sing this like Diana Ross would." So far, no one has.


Lynyrd Skynyrd

By Al Kooper 

In 1972, the radio was logjammed with progressive rock like you wouldn't believe — Yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis — I was searching for a great three-chord band to produce. And so, that year, I heard Lynyrd Skynyrd making their Atlanta debut at a very dangerous club on Peachtree Street called Funocchio's. They were playing a weeklong engagement, and each night I'd hear another great original song from them and knew I'd found the band I was searching for.

As I got to know them, I marveled at their work ethic. They had a shack on the swamp in their native Jacksonville, Florida, where they rehearsed constantly, honing their original material into polished, shining steel. They may have had three guitar players, but they understood restraint. Of all the bands I'd come across in my life, they were the finest arrangers. "Sweet Home Alabama" sounds like seasoned studio musicians twice their age.

Ronnie Van Zant was Lynyrd Skynyrd. I don't mean to demean the roles the others played in the group's success, but it never would have happened without him. His lyrics were a big part of it — like Woody Guthrie and Merle Haggard before him, Ronnie knew how to cut to the chase. And Ronnie ran that band with an iron hand. I have never seen such internal discipline in a band. One example: These guys composed all of their guitar solos. Most bands improvised solos each time they performed or recorded. Not them. Ronnie's dream was that they would sound exactly the same every time they took the stage.

After three or four albums, Lynyrd Skynyrd transcended the Southern-rock tag. They became one of the greatest rock & roll bands in history. They feared no one. On their very first national tour, they opened for the Who. And got encores!

When Ronnie went down in that terrible 1977 plane crash, the forward progress of the band ended. After the survivors all healed, they miraculously reassembled. Ronnie's kid brother Johnny took over, and you had to rub your eyes to make sure it wasn't Ronnie. But while the band could duplicate the majesty of past live shows (and still can), the heart and soul of the band was gone forever.


Nine Inch Nails

By David Bowie 

When the gods of nasty sounds tacked audition cards to the trees around town encouraging the brutes of industrial rock to brawl for the crown, a small lad with a tuba was probably not what they had in mind for a contender. His name was Michael Trent Reznor, and he also played sax and piano and learned early in life how to engineer a recording-studio console. He produced a terrific debut album called Pretty Hate Machine. Melodically oriented — and, because of record-company contractual problems, supported by what became a three-year tour — it birthed the first real mainstream breakthrough for industrial rock, selling over a million copies.

Following Brian Eno's example, Reznor unpacked his synth and threw away the manual. In making The Downward Spiral, he encouraged the computer to misconstrue input, willed it to spew out bloated, misshapen shards of sound that pierced and lacerated the listener. As a companion piece to Baudelaire's "To the Reader" — the preface to his Flowers of Evil — and second to the Velvet Underground, there has never been better soul-lashing in rock.

I had a strange dream a few years back. Lou Reed, myself and a friend known as Warren Peace were having dinner in one of those old-style Greenwich Village places where Pollock was supposed to have fought other painters. Our meal was served by one of the members of Einstúrzende Neubauten. I slowly became aware of the house music and that it was infuriatingly familiar. Our waiter, Blixa Bargeld, leaned in to me and whispered, "The music is a birthday surprise for Lou. Trent Reznor remixed this version of Metal Machine Music as a present."

As he said this, strands, splodges and blots from a Pollock early-Fifties "drip" painting materialized in front of our faces. While the music got louder, the paint hurtled around us faster and faster till we ran nauseous from the cafe, chased by infernal screaming lavender, blue and black snakes.

And that is it, really. Trent's music, built as it is on the history of industrial and mechanical sound experiments, contains a beauty that attracts and repels in equal measure: Nietzsche's "God is dead" to a nightclubbing beat. And always lifted, at the most needy moment, by a tantalizing melody.

I cannot believe that Spiral was released nearly 20 years ago now. It still sounds incredible today. And, no, no one ever calls him Mickey.


Booker T. and the MGs

By Isaac Hayes 

Booker T. and the MGs had that Southern funk flavor. Motown took care of the North with their polished sound, but the MGs were gritty and raw, and they could really groove. You can hear their sound reverberating throughout the whole industry today — especially since hip-hop guys sample so much of what they did back then. They were an integrated band — half white, half black. There was a "cotton curtain" back in the Sixties: Bands were all segregated in Memphis. But the MGs were like a family. That integration was a sign of things to come.

The MGs made a name for themselves with all those great instrumentals, like "Green Onions," but they were the house band at Stax/Volt, so they had real adaptive ability. Otis Redding had his sound, Sam and Dave had theirs, Albert King had his own thing. But it was always Booker T. and the MGs playing. When I did my first sessions at Stax, I learned everything about record production from those guys.

In the MGs, Steve Cropper and Donald "Duck" Dunn were the rock & rollers, but they also had the country thing covered, as well as the blues. Most guitar players like to go crazy, but Steve picked his spots, and when he spoke, it was profound. Duck was a great bass player, and very funny — one of them good old Southern beer-drinking boys.

Al Jackson's father was a drummer, so Al had a background of rhythm. Al had a little jazz flavor along with those R&B grooves. You know when I did "Shaft," with those 16th notes on the high-hat? That was actually a break Al played on Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness." That stuck with me.

Booker T. pioneered a lot of sounds on the organ. When you heard him play, you knew it couldn't be anyone else. I remember one time, Booker accidentally had two dates booked at the same time, so he took some other band and went somewhere in Kansas, and I went with the MGs to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where I had to go pose as Booker T. Halfway through, some guy yells out, "Hey, man, that guy ain't no Booker T.! He ain't got no hair!" We said, "Oh, shit." But the groove took over, and that calmed them down.


Guns n’ Roses

By Joe Perry 

Guns n' Roses revived our kind of rock. I remember someone handing me a copy of Appetite for Destruction and saying, "You've got to hear these guys — they're the new big thing." Bands like Bon Jovi and Whitesnake were big then, but Guns n' Roses were different. They dug down a little deeper into rock's roots. I heard a lot of Aerosmith in them, which meant I also heard a lot of bands that came before us. And I remember being a little jealous, because they were really hitting the nail on the head.

They opened up for us in 1988, and one of the things that impressed me was how much personality they put across, even when they weren't playing. Axl knew how to work an audience. They used to have to go out there and tape foam rubber around everything that Axl could touch — from his teleprompter to his mic stand — to make sure he wouldn't break anything, or hurt himself. I think people saw that he was basically just let out of the cage. Part of the thrill was wondering what he was going to do next.

They were called metal at the time, but they weren't: Metal isn't sexy, but rock is. To put it another way: You can have the rock, but you need the roll. Songs like "Paradise City" and "Welcome to the Jungle" were just simple enough; the chorus lines came right when you wanted them. Slash plays what's needed for the song, as opposed to trying to make the tune a showcase for his technique. Guns n' Roses' music wasn't full of the overblown gymnastics that a lot of guys were doing then — their stuff is just very tasty. Duff McKagan is like the bass player in AC/DC: His parts were fairly simple, but they made the band an unstoppable force. Izzy Stradlin was also important. Guns n' Roses played as a gang, which is just what you want.

Guns n' Roses are still an example of how a band can move rock forward. Sometimes you think, "How can you top anything by the Yardbirds, or Zeppelin, or the Stones?" And then you hear Guns n' Roses, and it's inspiring. You can think that it's all been written, but it hasn't. There's another way to twist those three chords around, to make it sound new, fresh and rebellious.


Tom Petty

By Stevie Nicks 

In 1976, I'd been in Fleetwood Mac for about a year when I heard Tom Petty's debut. I became a fan right then. I loved the way Tom's Florida swamp-dog voice sounded in cahoots with Mike Campbell's guitar and Benmont Tench's keyboards. Tom had the same influences we had — the Byrds, Neil Young, Crosby, Stills and Nash — but he dropped in lots of serious old blues. And Tom is such a great singer and so charismatic onstage. I became such a fan that if I hadn't been in a band myself, I would have joined that one.

When I started doing my first solo album, Bella Donna, my first thought was, "Who produces Tom Petty?" When they said Jimmy Iovine, I got Jimmy, because I wanted my solo work to be as much like Tom's as possible.

I first met Tom in the studio, and he was pretty much what I expected. There's not a fake bone in his body. Jimmy and Tom decided to give me "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around," which they had written with Campbell. When they showed it to me, I was like, "Is this the right thing to do? I only get 11 songs and one of them won't be mine." And both Tom and Jimmy said to me, in a brutally honest way, "You don't have a single on this record. And here's a single for you."

Tom is a great and loyal friend, but he's also honest like that. In 1994, I had just gotten out of rehab, and Tom and I had dinner. I wanted to make a new record but I was scared. I said to him, "Will you help me write a song or two?" I didn't really expect the reaction I got, which was, "No, I won't. You are one of the premier songwriters in this business. Go home and turn off the radio. Don't be influenced by anything. Just write some great songs — that's what you do." He reinforced that I was still Stevie Nicks. I wrote a song about him I've never recorded, but I will someday. It goes, "Sometimes he's my best friend, even when he's not around."

In 2006, I did 27 shows with him. Tom made me a little platinum sheriff's badge that had 24-karat gold and diamonds across the top and said "To Our Honorary Heartbreaker, Stevie Nicks." On the back it says "To the Only Girl in Our Band." I keep it on my black velvet top hat. It goes with me everywhere. It's probably the most beautiful piece of jewelry a man has ever given me, ever.


Carlos Santana

By Henry Garza of Los Lonely Boys

Carlos Santana's music is a family thing for Chicanos. It's what you listen to when you're all hanging out: Drinking some beers, listening to "Oye Como Va" and cooking some barbecue is the best thing in the world. His music hits right to the pump — right to the heart. He's a pioneer of Latin rock & roll: His music was something new, but it was intertwined with everything else that was out there at the time — Sixties rock, Latin jazz and more. We're trying to do the same thing with Los Lonely Boys — make a lot of different types of music into something our own — but he did that first. He incorporated his culture into the music, and he mixed English and Spanish in the lyrics.

Everything on a song like "Black Magic Woman" works: the keyboards, the congos, the drums, the vocals. Carlos isn't the lead singer, but he is the maestro. Of course, the best thing about all his albums is his guitar. He's one of the greatest players who ever lived. His guitar has a very distinctive sound — it's like a fingerprint. His tone just bleeds through everything. His playing is both simple and complicated — he can communicate with just one or two notes. He speaks languages through his music that people can understand in any country, any language.

Those first three albums — Santana, Abraxas, Santana III — are really special to me. You could hear his ethnicity in his music — even when he's playing like some blues cat, he still sounds like Santana. And his music always has that rhythm. It makes you want to get your girlfriend and go to a dance in your lowrider. Some people were confused after that by his Seventies music, when he became jazzier. But he was just experimenting, learning more. And then his comeback with Supernatural shows how enduring his talent is.

Santana has a really good message to send to the human spirit. He once said to us, "You want to be like emissaries of light. When you're up on that stage or when you record, you want to be a tool that light shines through to everybody."

You don't want to dwell in darkness. You want to go toward the light. And Santana is the light.


The Yardbirds

By Steven Tyler

Listen to "Somebody," a song I wrote for Aerosmith's first album: It's all from the Yardbirds. They were the shit to us, out of all the British bands in the Sixties. The Yardbirds were a bit of a mystery. They had an eclecticism — the Gregorian chant-ness of the vocals, the melodic diversity, the way they used guitar feedback. I loved that weirdness.

In the Sixties, I was in a band called Chain Reaction. We got to know the Yardbirds because they played at Staples High School in Westport, Connecticut, in 1966. We had a friend, Henry Smith, who had been our manager for a while, and he had gone to school there. He called me and said, "Steven, the Yardbirds are playing here, and you can open up." It was the lineup with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, who was playing bass on that tour. We waited all day for them to arrive. I grabbed their amps, they grabbed ours. We carried each other's gear in, because back then, that's what you did. Hence began the rumor that I was a roadie for the Yardbirds.

They did "Shapes of Things," "Beck's Boogie," among other songs. I was in such awe. They played like no other band. They weren't concerned with clothes or looks or hit singles. Their thing was "What do we do with these sounds?" They did things with harmonics — minor thirds and fifths — that created this ethereal, monstrous sound.

You hear it in every song — the way they could take the blues and turn it into a pop song like "For Your Love," then something psychedelic like "Shapes of Things," which has that weird middle. You can hear the click when Beck hits his fuzz box. Page, in the end, was the one who took those ideas all the way with Led Zeppelin. The two shows I remember where I just sat with my mouth open was that Yardbirds show, and Led Zeppelin at the Boston Tea Party in 1969.

As a singer, the thing I got out of the Yardbirds was that you don't have to have a great voice. It's all about attitude. He was a white boy who pushed it to the max. And he was a great harmonica player. You never heard Jagger hanging out on a single note the way Keith Relf could.

The shame is, I know how great the Yardbirds were. But I don't think everyone else knows it. The Yardbirds' music is a gold mine waiting to be stumbled upon. Aerosmith did, because we grew up in that era. The riff in "Walk This Way" is just us trying to explore the blues in the Yardbirds model. What the Yardbirds did is something you don't hear in today's blue-plate-special, cookie-cutter music. Everything is so canned and sliced up now. This was back when a band was a band. You had all those personalities, and they were all truly playing together. And I don't hear that today. The day of those bands, that wild stepping out, is gone.



By Ezra Koenig

Somewhere between LOL and FML there was "TRL." MTV's Total Request Live debuted in September 1998. The early TRL charts were dominated by 'N Sync, the Backstreet Boys, Korn and their respective biters. Then, six weeks in, Jay-Z's "Can I Get A … " video debuted at Number 10. It wasn't the beginning of his career as a rapper, but it was the beginning of his career as a major force in pop music.

Mainstream radio and TV presented the late-Nineties teenager with a weirdly extreme choice between aggro rock played by men in tank tops and mushy ballads sung by slightly smaller men in tank tops; Jay-Z presented a much-needed alternative. This is not to say that Jay-Z never wore tank tops, but he was (and continues to be) an exceedingly rare combination of intelligence, weirdness, seriousness and pop appeal. Go look back at those TRL charts and it's not hard to tell why a generation of musicians, critics and fans became so deeply connected to the lyrics of a dude who, supposedly, was describing a world that at least 50 percent of his fans "couldn't relate to."

In my lifetime, Jay-Z has, by far, been the most artful and exciting musician to consistently make hits, and I mean real hits — Top 10 singles deep into his career, like "Empire State of Mind." How many artists make it 15 years without embarrassing themselves, let alone while maintaining their relevancy?

I remember getting chills watching him perform "On to the Next One" at Coachella. He was wearing all black and standing in front of a giant video wall. I interpret that song as both an ode to creative ingenuity and a critique of infinite-growth capitalism. Admittedly, I was reading a lot about peak oil at the time, but c'mon, who else can inspire a crowd of 100,000 to throw their arms in the air while offering each individual brain in that crowd the opportunity to think critically about language and the state of the world today?

His lyrics are deep enough to demand exegesis (see: Decoded), at times, cute and playful enough to be memorized by every "mean girl" at my high school (see: his verse on Mariah Carey's "Heartbreaker"). On "Public Service Announcement," he described himself as being like "Che Guevara with bling on." Some people found this to be in bad taste, but it doesn't feel too off the mark to me. At the very least, I don't think anyone will take issue with the next line: "I'm complex."


Gram Parsons

By Keith Richards

Like I know the blues, Gram Parsons knew country music — every nuance, every great country song that was ever written. And he could express it all — the music from Nashville and Bakersfield, California, the stuff from Texas — in his singing and songwriting. But he also had intelligence and honesty. That's the kind of guy I like to hang with. Also, he loved to get stoned. At the time, that was an added plus.

I first met Gram in 1968, when the Byrds were appearing in London — I think it was a club called Blazes. I knew the Byrds from Mr. Tambourine Man on; the Stones had worked some shows in California with them back then. But when I saw them at Blazes with Gram, I could see this was a radical turn. I went backstage, and we hooked up. Then the Byrds came through London again, on their way to South Africa. I was like, "Man, we don't go there." The sanctions and the embargo were on. So he quit the Byrds, right there and then. Of course, he's got nowhere to stay, so he moved in with me.

Basically, we hung around together, like musicians do. We'd spend hours and hours at the piano, swapping ideas. Gram and I both loved the songs of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant — the Everly Brothers stuff they wrote. We both loved that melancholy, high-lonesome shit. We were always looking for the next heart-tugger, looking to pull that extra heartstring.

As a songwriter, Gram worked very much like I do, which is to knock out a couple of chords, start to spiel and see how far it can go, rather than sitting around with a piece of paper and a pen, trying to make things fit neatly together. But he would also work very hard — harder than I ever did — on honing it down.

Mick and Gram never really clicked, mainly because the Stones are such a tribal thing. At the same time, Mick was listening to what Gram was doing. Mick's got ears. Sometimes, while we were making Exile on Main Street in France, the three of us would be plonking away on Hank Williams songs while waiting for the rest of the band to arrive. Gram had the biggest repertoire of country songs you could imagine. He was never short of a song.

The drugs and drinking — he was no better or worse than the rest of us. He just made that one fatal mistake — taking that one hit after he cleaned up, still thinking he could take the same amount. And it was too fucking much. But he didn't get into dope because of us. He knew his stuff before he met us.

I think he was just getting into his stride when he died. His actual output — the number of records he made and sold — was pretty minimal. But his effect on country music is enormous. This is why we're talking about him now. But we can't know what his full impact could have been. If Buddy Holly hadn't gotten on that plane, or Eddie Cochran hadn't turned the wrong corner, think of what stuff we could have looked forward to, and be hearing now. It would be phenomenal.

In a way, it's a matter of lost love. Gram was everything you wanted in a singer and a songwriter. He was fun to be around, great to play with as a musician. And that motherfucker could make chicks cry. I have never seen another man who could make hardened old waitresses at the Palomino Club in Los Angeles shed tears the way he did.

It was all in the man. I miss him so.


Tupac Shakur

By 50 Cent

Every rapper who grew up in the Nineties owes something to Tupac. People either try to emulate him in some way, or they go in a different direction because they didn't like what he did. But whatever you think of him, he definitely developed his own style: He didn't sound like anyone who came before him.

My favorite Tupac album is The Don Killuminati. It was recorded after he was shot and spent time in prison. It was like a doctor told him he was going to die, and he was trying to get it all down on paper. That's something the average rapper just could not do: build an entire album around that concept, and stay in that negative space. Everybody knows that they're going to die. But after you're in a life-threatening situation, you think about it a little more.

Tupac's aggressive records are my favorite. "Hail Mary" is just perfect: "Picture paragraphs unloaded/Wise words being quoted." Most artists now just aren't smart enough to write that, or honest enough to write a line like, "I ain't a killer but don't push me." These days rappers will just tell you, "I'll kill you."

Tupac was like a camera. It's incredible how much he wrote — how much he documented. To me, 'Pac was more of a poet than a rapper. You can always tell when you're hearing Tupac verse. He wrote those lyrics without any music. Notorious B.I.G. was more melody-driven — I'm sure he wrote his shit without a pen, and over the music — but 'Pac was just hashing out his life. The thing was, he was doing that when the public eye was on him, and everything he was hashing out just expanded, and that's when things got out of control.

All of us on the East Coast loved Tupac. The music was all that mattered. That East Coast/West Coast feud was just personal beef. Now that he's not here, he's bigger than ever. I can still listen to two or three Tupac CDs straight. Sometimes I put on Tupac's best songs, followed by Biggie's best songs. Then I get ready to go into my next project.

Laurence Fishburne told me once that he didn't like Tupac. He told me it was because Tupac was so much smarter than everyone around him. He said he didn't like the way Tupac behaved because he knew that Tupac knew better. I understood what he meant. But I still gave him a look like he was bugging.


Black Sabbath

By Dave Navarro

Black Sabbath are the Beatles of heavy metal. Anybody who's serious about metal will tell you it all comes down to Sabbath. Any hard-rock band that ever tried to write a crazy twelve-minute operetta owes them a debt. There's a direct line you can draw back from today's metal, through Eighties bands like Iron Maiden, back to Sabbath.

All the compelling themes are on Black Sabbath's records: beauty, atrocity, the seven deadly sins. Their music can make you think of walking on the beach with your wife, or of locking yourself in your room with your big toe on the trigger of a shotgun — sometimes within the same song. The title song of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath has all of the stuff I'm talking about: It's rebellious and dark and wicked, but it's also gorgeous.

A lot of deep records — like Pink Floyd's The Wall or Nine Inch Nails' The Fragile — are dense, long journeys. Every time you listen to them you hear something new. Sabbath records do that for me, too, but they're simple. When Sabbath wanted to convey a different message, they didn't need to pick up an acoustic guitar or call in the London Philharmonic. They could do pretty much anything with just bass, drums, guitar and vocals.

Black Sabbath's rhythm section doesn't get enough props. If you listen to the way that Geezer Butler and Bill Ward play off of each other, that's the core of the heaviness right there. Add to that Ozzy's amazing voice and one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time, Tony Iommi, and it's an unstoppable force. They're a fucking piece of the mountain coming down behind you, and you can't do anything about it.

I was 11 when I first heard Sabbath. Vol. 4 was the album, and it quickly became one of my favorites. At an early age I looked to music to take me out of my reality, and Sabbath does that better than any hard-rock act I know. In Jane's Addiction, we were into a groove that was very repetitive, riff-oriented and hypnotic — similar in a lot of ways to a song like "War Pigs," off of Paranoid (my favorite Sabbath album). And of course, both bands have a singer with a really high-end voice that cuts through all the chaos below. I'm still coming up with stuff that is a complete and blatant rip-off. There's just no escaping them.


James Taylor

By Art Garfunkel

I sing to James Taylor before every show I do. I warm up in my dressing room to "Handy Man," "Sarah Maria," "Song for You Far Away," "Sweet Baby James," "Copperline" and about 20 other favorites. Then I go from James' bass-baritone to tenor singing with the Everly Brothers — first Don, later Phil.

While I'm unisoning with James, my reverence rises; my heart and mind become engaged in the sober intelligence of the song and the beauty of the singing. James' accuracy of pitch is like a trader's honesty. To me, it has always been paramount in singing. There is an illuminating love of living things — all of them here on earth — that lies within the tenderness of his line readings (listen to his song "Gaia," from Hourglass). If vocal-cord vibration were like surfing off the swelling of the heart, James would be my favorite rider on the cusp — a little in the air, sublime in the spray.

It's no accident that the Beatles' Apple Records signed James Taylor at its inception. He is the finest of us Americans. I know the "folk music" he must have listened to (I, too, had been wand'ring early and late…). I have experienced the thrill of collaborating with him numerous times as we have invited each other into our respective albums. I recall our trio arrangement of "(What a) Wonderful World" with my Paul — we met up at Paul's apartment (of course). It was '77. Two extraordinary artists were giving me the gift of their vocals and guitar parts for my album, Watermark. I must have done something right. What is memorable today is the ease and efficiency with which we three found our harmonies. There was a mutual musical sensibility and a serious mutual respect.

James is so fine. His exactitude with the Note is simple, impeccable musicianship. Call it his refinement or the civility of intelligent life. Hear the innate dignity of James' tribute song to Martin Luther King Jr. ("Shed a Little Light"). Some people have a hard time with the self-consciousness of perfectionism. But I think "perfect" is the best review.

I hope he reads this tribute of mine and recognizes what a great personal value his existence is to one of his colleagues. And I hope he breaks into another grin from ear to ear as he feels "that's why I'm here."



By Elton John

When Eminem and I did "Stan" at the Grammys in 2001, we got together to rehearse out in the Valley. We had never met or really spoken, so I was a little intimidated. When we started to do the song and Eminem made his entrance, I got goose bumps, the likes of which I have not felt since I first saw Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jagger, James Brown and Aretha Franklin. Eminem was that good. I just thought, "Fuck, this man is amazing." There are very few performers who can grab you like that the first time — only the greats.

Eminem is a true poet of his time, someone we'll be talking about for decades to come. He tells stories in such a powerful and distinctive way. As a lyricist, he's one of the best ever. Eminem does for his audience what Dylan did for his: He writes how he feels. His anger, vulnerability and humor come out. That's why we look forward to listening to Eminem's lyrics and finding out where the hell he's headed next.

Eminem lives, sleeps and breathes music — he's a bit like me in that respect. He's pretty much a recluse. I think he's enthralled with what he's doing; he's intimately involved with his art. There's a mystique about him. From the start, I have always admired Eminem's thinking. That's the reason I wanted to appear on the Grammys with him when I was asked, despite all the nonsense talked about his being homophobic and crap like that. The Boy Georges of the world all got up in a twist about it. If they didn't have the intelligence to see his intelligence, that was their problem.

Eminem has the balls to say what he feels and to make offensive things funny. That's very necessary today, when irony is becoming a lost art. Artists like Eminem who use their free speech to get a point across are vitally important. There just aren't many people in the world with balls that big and talent that awesome.


Creedence Clearwater Revival

By Stephen Malkamus

My parents had basically nine vinyl albums, all greatest hits: the Beatles' red/blue albums, Carpenters, Neil Diamond, Elton John, the Beach Boys' Endless Summer, Jim Croce, Gordon Lightfoot … and Creedence Gold. Creedence was the one I took. It has perhaps the Dullest Expensive Album Cover ever, with the foldout profiles of the band members, but it sat proudly next to Devo, Kiss, the Yardbirds, the Stones' early albums (they were cheap), the Decline of Western Civilization soundtrack and the Dead Kennedys' Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables. I was pretty much just into "Suzie Q" and "Born on the Bayou" back then, but I came to appreciate almost everything they ever did.

The songs are great. You have swamp-boogie numbers of varying length ("Green River," "Born on the Bayou"), catchy energy bursts ("Fortunate Son," "Sinister Purpose"), pop ("Have You Ever Seen the Rain," et al.) and the soul numbers ("Long As I Can See the Light"). They are all arranged well, have catchy melodies and solid rock lyrics.

John Fogerty has an inimitable voice. He puts it to the test over and over — and wins. The rhythm section is rad. You try to play this stuff and you'll see they had chops. The rhythm guitar kicks, too. Fogerty plays what I would if I was 22, more talented and into the blues.

The records have their own vibe — performance-based, few overdubs, like if some Memphis/Booker T.-type band moved West and got a youth-culture injection. The focus is on the songs and not the rock star BS that was taking over back then. But they weren't afraid to create a mood. When Cream came out, everybody started a power trio. But basically, "Suzie Q" has all the drama you would ever need. John Fogerty wrote more classic songs in a three-year stretch than anyone other than the Beatles.

Thank you, Creedence, for being popular and timeless enough to be on CD jukeboxes. Keep on chooglin'.