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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.

REX

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.

66

Al Green

By Justin Timberlake

Al Green has helped overpopulate the world. He's got some serious babymaking music. But what makes him such an inspiration is the raw passion, the sincerity and the joy he brings to his music. People are born to do certain things, and Al was born to make us smile. You hear his voice and it lights everything up. Every time one of his songs starts playing — whether it's "You Ought to Be With Me," "I'm Still in Love With You," "Love and Happiness" or, of course, "Let's Stay Together" — when the stomp starts and the guitar comes in, you know you're in for something full of sweet love. His songs weren't as political as Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway. But if those guys were speaking to you, Al Green was speaking for you.

Al Green's voice will always remind me of driving the back roads of Memphis with my parents, listening to cassette tapes. Hearing Al as a kid made me want to become a singer and showed me that it was OK to have a softer, more falsetto voice. I really related to that, because I never had a big, boisterous, American Idol showstopping voice. Al, he was a crooner. The way he would squeeze out a note can't be trained and can't be imitated.

Behind him was this incredible band. On songs like "Tired of Being Alone," the horns are tasteful and restrained but completely funky. I always loved the way the mistakes were kept in on his albums, like the way the band is almost out of sync at the beginning of "Love and Happiness." Even his messes are beautiful.

Eventually I found out this man I idolized lived five minutes from me in my hometown. Then, years later, I went to the White House (back when Clinton was in office), and Al was there performing. He sang Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," and the audience wept. After I released my first solo album, I was doing a TV special in Memphis, and I called him and asked if he'd grace us with his presence. We sang "Let's Stay Together" on that stage, and it was a milestone in my short, unimportant career. I learned something incredible: Everything always has to be about the show. But Al Green is the show, and when you watch him perform, you see something honest and soulful and amazing.

65

The Kinks

By Peter Buck

I've got pretty much every note the Kinks recorded on my iPod — certainly everything through 1980. And it all sounds good. The Kinks are the only major band from the Sixties I can think of that didn't go psychedelic, didn't do any of that crap that all of the other big bands did at the time. When everyone was writing song cycles about Eastern mysticism, Ray Davies was writing about a two-up/two-down flat in some English suburb. Ray wrote songs about the things that were important to him. He invented his world and gave it life. And in that world, people weren't wearing Nehru jackets, smoking pot and jamming for 24 hours a day. The Kinks created a different world — and I'm glad they did it.

When I first heard Village Green Preservation Society, in 1971, I got this picture in my head of small-town English life: village greens, draft beer. But when R.E.M. went to England in 1985, I drove through Muswell Hill — and it certainly wasn't romantic-looking. I had this picture of a gorgeous vista — when it's really a kind of grimy area. I realized these songs were all acts of imagination, that Ray was commemorating an England that was slipping away. There is a great air of sadness in those songs.

I am amazed at how great the Kinks' records sounded — even though, when you listen closely, there is very little going on in them. Village Green is the best example: Unlike a lot of records of its time, it's not stuffed with a ton of instruments. And yet the songs are perfectly realized, well arranged.

Ray wrote "You Really Got Me" on piano. Then he gives it to his brother Dave, this teenage maniac, who turns it into a demented guitar part. I read that an interviewer once asked Dave if he thought the Kinks had gone heavy metal in the Eighties. He said, "It wasn't called heavy metal when I invented it." When R.E.M. started out, Dave's solo on that song was the only solo I knew how to play. So whenever I had to do a solo, I would just play that.

The Kinks slipped into rock history through the back door. All of those great albums that we talk about now, like Face to Face, Something Else by the Kinks and Village Green — nobody bought those records in the Sixties. But those of us who love those records — and a lot of us are musicians — have loved them for decades.

64

Phil Spector

By Jerry Wexler

There are three kinds of record producers. The first kind is the documentarian — someone like Leonard Chess, who goes into a bar on the South Side of Chicago, sees Muddy Waters with a six-piece combo, then pulls him into the studio the next day and says, "Play what you played last night." The second is the type who serves the artist; I would be so brash as to include myself in that category, along with John Hammond, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, and Bob Thiele — music fans who try to develop great singers.

Then there's the producer who does it all. Phil Spector could be the greatest of these. For Spector, the song and the recording were one thing, and they existed in his brain. When he went into the studio, it came out of him, like Minerva coming out of Jupiter's head. Every instrument had its role to play, and it was all prefigured. The singer was just one tile in this intaglio. Songs such as the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" and Ike and Tina Turner's "River Deep, Mountain High" had wonderful singers, but they were tiles. Phil would get the track ready, then call upon the artist and say, "OK, now sing." There were songwriter-producers before him, but no one did the whole thing like Phil.

When I first met him, he was very young, sleeping on the couch at the Atlantic Records offices and using the switchboard after hours. He was brash, cocky and talented. I remember that if I would vouchsafe an opinion about something when we were together in the studio — a snare drum on a bridge of a song, or whatever — Phil would say, "Oh, man, I came here from California to make hits." It meant, "Shut the fuck up and get out of my face." But like Dizzy Dean used to say, "If you can do it, it ain't bragging," and Phil can do it: play piano and guitar, compose and produce.

His music is impeccable. Where it comes from, I don't know.

63

Tina Turner

By Janet Jackson

Tina Turner has become more than just a musical superstar and sex symbol, though she is definitely both of those things. For me — and I imagine for millions of others — Tina now stands as an enduring symbol of survival and of grace. Her music is a healing thing.

Remember that famous introduction to "Proud Mary," when Tina talks about liking things "nice and … rough"? We all know that she faced some rough times in her life. But the reality is that life never threw her anything that she couldn't handle. One of Tina's big hits is called "We Don't Need Another Hero." Yet Tina has become a heroic figure for many people because of her tremendous strength. Tina doesn't seem to have a beginning or an end. I felt her music was always there, and I feel like it always will be.

The story of Tina's rise and fall with Ike Turner is well-known. You can see what it was like in the movie What's Love Got to Do With It. But I believe it's time to put the Ike story to rest. The truth is that when Tina came back in the Eighties, she became much bigger than she was the first time around. Tina's story is not one of victimhood but one of incredible triumph.

In the beginning, Tina's music was based on hard times and harsh realities. Think about a song like "Nutbush City Limits." That was her story. But over the years, her story changed, and her music reflected those changes beautifully. Tina has the ability to dream, get out, get over and get on with it. She's transformed herself into an international sensation — an elegant powerhouse. But wherever she may be, whether it's in Spain, Asia or Egypt, she's never forgotten her humble beginnings. Tina Turner knows who she is, and to this day, she remains one of the true greats. In every sense, the woman has legs.

62

Joni Mitchell

By Jewel

Joni Mitchell is a bigger icon than she is a star. Bob Dylan and Keith Richards became so famous that they're stars and icons. Joni is still unknown to lots of people. The impact she had wasn't flashy. But she influenced people who became stars.

I remember a friend in high school playing me "A Case of You," from Blue. I could tell that Joni was a painter by the way she wrote lyrics. She describes smells and sounds and uses fewer words to transmit more feeling. Her melodies are about shapes. The singing lines are slow, steep plateaus. One of the things I learned from Joni: If you can tell the story and keep things moving, you don't need to return to the chorus on time.

What she writes is closer to journalism: On Blue, you hear everything she experienced, the highs and the lows. It's such a lonely album — not in the "I don't have any friends" sense but in the sense that you're a little bit removed, and always watching. It takes a lot of courage to be that honest, especially as a woman. When she did it, it was a fluffy time — pretty girls singing about pretty things.

Joni had an edginess that not many women expressed then. Joni Mitchell never made a big deal out of being a woman. She had such a strong sexuality, but she didn't feel the need to deny that part of her in order to be taken seriously. She also didn't play it up — although many of her songs are about sex.

I met her at a Vanity Fair photo shoot. Stevie Wonder introduced us. He took my hand — I guess I led him to her — and he said, "Joni, I'd like you to meet Jewel." I just shook her hand and tried to swallow. I didn't have anything to say to her. Her influence on me is so obvious. I hope she can hear it.

61

Metallica

By Flea 

In 1984, I was on tour with my band, somewhere in the middle of America. It was around 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning. We're all crammed into our van, with all our equipment. It was raining. We were tired, we'd been on the road. And this music comes on the radio. I couldn't believe that it existed. My mind was being blown by this beautiful violence that was unlike anything I'd ever heard before.

It wasn't punk rock. It wasn't heavy metal. It was precise and explosive and heavy. It was aggressive and intense, and it had these really wild and bizarre rhythm changes. But it still held together as a bitchin'-ass song. I was singin' along with it by the end, though it certainly wasn't using any conventional pop-song pattern that I had ever heard. That song was "Fight Fire With Fire." And it opened up my mind to the mighty force of nature that is Metallica.

When Metallica started in 1981, they didn't really take your typical path to success. I don't know if massive stardom and selling a zillion records were on their minds when they were getting the ball rolling. But if they were aiming at becoming one of the most successful rock bands of all time, they sure were going about it in a kooky way. Maybe they were thinking they were going to break into Casey Kasem's Top 40 countdown with their debut record, Kill 'Em All. They were definitely going for a hit single with the song "(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth." A five-minute-long bass solo is a sure ticket to commercial success.

That song is one of the great moments in rock history for the electric bass guitar. Every Cliff Burton-based solo I've ever heard is a soulful, psychedelic, headbanging expression that rocks your world, trips your brain out and gets the house rockin'. It's a beautiful piece of music played by an awesome rocker of a young man who was a masterpiece of a human being. I can never listen to any Metallica record without thinking of him. It is clear that the gift he gave lives on in that band's music.

The fact that Metallica connected with the world in the way that they have is phenomenal. They have become a household name with music that is anything but mainstream. It's outsider music. And for it to do what it has done is truly mind-blowing. When I hear Metallica, I get this feeling that they're doing something that they have to do.

There is this thing in them wound up so tight that they have to let it out, let that thing uncoil; it has to be released. An infinite well of sadness, a hell of a lot of pain and anger, but mostly, a lot of love for the process of releasing this stuff. For the people who give it up and get rocked by Metallica, the world is a less lonely place. When a person gets rocking to their music, everything else disappears, and that person is just one with the rock. It is an inexplicable, awesome thing, and I bow down to it. Pain and hurt can be a muse for great art. It's one of the greatest rites of passage for any artist, and it's something that touches us most deeply. Anyone who has ever been to a Metallica show, and banged their head, and thrown up the devil horns, has been a part of something great. Rocking so hard to the brutal beat of Metallica for those couple of hours, in a way, is as healthy as any spiritual exercise — group meditation, any love-in, anything.

Metallica's career is a huge, dynamic thing, and they have done it all. They have worked their way up from nothing, and written the jams that rocked the world. Metallica are fucking rad! The music is bitchin'! It is unbelievable! And they continue to rock on. Whatever gets thrown at them, they persevere and they get stronger; they are a family. And they are as intense and inventive as ever.

60

The Sex Pistols

By Billie Joe Armstrong 

The Sex Pistols released just one album — Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols — but it punched a huge hole in everything that was bullshit about rock music, and everything that was going wrong with the world, too. No one else has had that kind of impact with one album. You can hear their influence everywhere from Joy Division to Guns n' Roses to Public Enemy to the Smiths to Slayer. Never Mind the Bollocks is the root of everything that goes on at modern-rock radio. It's just an amazing thing that no one's been able to live up to.

It's a myth that these guys couldn't play their instruments. Steve Jones is one of the best guitarists of all time, as far as I'm concerned — he taught me how a Gibson should sound. Paul Cook was an amazing drummer with a distinct sound, right up there with Keith Moon or Charlie Watts. There are bands out there still trying to sound like the Sex Pistols and can't, because they were great players.

The difference between John Lydon and a lot of other punk singers is that they can only emulate what he was doing naturally. There was nothing about him that was contrived. As far as the bass player goes, I don't think it was necessarily a mistake to replace Glen Matlock with Sid Vicious. Matlock was cool, but Sid was everything that's cool about punk rock: a skinny rocker who had a ton of attitude, sort of an Elvis, James Dean kind of guy. That said, there's nothing romantic about being addicted to heroin. He was capable of playing his instrument, but he was too fucked up to do it.

The things that Lydon wrote about back in '76 and '77 are totally relevant to what's going on right now. They paint an ugly picture. No one ever had the guts to say what they said. The only person who did anything similar to it was Bob Dylan, and even Bob Dylan was never that blunt.

When I first heard them, I was 14 or 15 and into a lot of heavy-metal and hard-rock music. I think I was at a girl's house. I remember hearing those boot stomps to "Holidays in the Sun." And then the guitar came roaring through like thunder. By the time Lydon's vocal came in, I definitely wanted to destroy my past and create something new for myself. That's sort of the impact that they always had on me and my music. When I'm trying to create something, I always refer to the Sex Pistols, because they show you what the possibilities are in music. You don't have to emulate them, but thanks to them, you can take it anywhere.

59

Aerosmith

By Slash 

I don't think this generation has a clue what classic Aerosmith was all about. But they were the template for what I do, as well as plenty of bands that came after Guns n' Roses: Soundgarden, Nirvana, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam all owed a serious debt to old-school Aerosmith.

My big awakening happened when I was 14 years old. I'd been trying to get into this older girl's pants for a while, and she finally let me come over to her house. We hung out, smoked some pot and listened to Aerosmith's Rocks. It hit me like a fucking ton of bricks. I sat there listening to it over and over, and totally blew off this girl. I remember riding my bike back to my grandma's house knowing that my life had changed forever. Now I identified with something.

The key to Rocks is the first two songs — "Back in the Saddle" and "Last Child." That combination just ripped my head off. But my favorite song on the record has always been "Nobody's Fault," which is the second song on the B side. Aerosmith had an aggressive, psychotic, drugged-out vibe, but at the same time they had a Stones-y blues thing going on. There was just nothing cooler than Aerosmith coming out of America at that point. What else was there? Foghat?

When I was just starting to learn how to play guitar, Aerosmith gave me the shove I needed. I identified with Joe Perry's image, both soundwise and visually. He was streamlined in a way that reminded me of Keith Richards, was always wasted and had a careless guitar style that was really cool. But I was also totally into Brad Whitford's guitar solos, and he had a more direct influence on the way I play than anybody realizes. And anyone who sings needs to be exposed to Steven Tyler.

My first Aerosmith concert was in 1978, at a festival with Van Halen — they were incredibly loud and I barely recognized a note, but it was still the most bitchin' thing I'd ever seen. Soon after that, they broke up, which to me marked the end of Seventies rock. The next time I saw them was when they got back together six years later, and they were amazing. When Aerosmith are in the groove, they're just rock-solid. Not too long after that, Guns n' Roses were asked to open for Aerosmith on their Permanent Vacation tour. We went to their manager's hotel room, and while he was in the bathroom we ordered $1,500 worth of room service and trashed the place. But they must have liked us a lot, because they put us on the bill anyway, and I've known them ever since.

58

Parliament and Funkadelic

By Ice Cube 

When I was going out in the Eighties, you could get your ass kicked if you put on Funkadelic's "(Not Just) Knee Deep" at a house party. Some DJs wouldn't play that song or "Flash Light," because a fight would start: The crazy motherfuckers at parties would become real crazy. "Knee Deep" was their coming-out music. At 15 minutes, it was so long and so good, it made you feel like now was the time. For whatever. George C