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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.

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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.

85

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.

84

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."

83

Eminem

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.

CCR
82

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'.

81

The Drifters

By Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller

Over the years, the Drifters were a couple of different great groups and a whole bunch of wonderful guys. In a way, that upheaval may be part of the reason they recorded so many immortal songs over such a long period.

We were both fans of the Drifters even before we started writing, and later producing, for them. There was a real tradition of great singers in the group: Clyde McPhatter, Johnny Moore, Ben E. King and Rudy Lewis. Yet for all their fantastic records, the Drifters had the least stable lineup of any of the great vocal groups. They were in essence a band of hired guns, overseen by their management. Let's just say this wasn't necessarily a situation where guys were getting rich off the royalties.

Our first cut writing for the Drifters was "Ruby Baby," which Nesuhi Ertegun produced and Johnny Moore sang lead on, in 1955. We loved what they did with the song. Their management changed the lineup in 1958, and that's when the great Ben E. King came into the picture. The Drifters records that we're most associated with, including "There Goes My Baby," come from that era.

Ben E. King was this younger singer just coming up, yet he had this mature style that was so unusual. He was always wonderful to work with, and we had a truly great run together. People have said that "There Goes My Baby" was a very influential record because it helped set the stage for the Wall of Sound and Motown. Who are we to argue? Thanks to a great arrangement by Stan Applebaum, the song showed us how rock & roll and strings could really work together. When King left, we worked with him as a solo artist, and the Drifters kept on having hits too, first with Rudy Lewis as the new lead singer. Upon Lewis' death, Moore returned to the group in time for "Under the Boardwalk."

We wrote songs for the Drifters, but we also put the call out to all the best songwriters in our world. Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman came with perfect songs like "This Magic Moment" and "Save the Last Dance for Me." Gerry Goffin and Carole King wrote "Up on the Roof." We also put the Drifters together with Burt Bacharach — who met Dionne Warwick at our office for a Drifters session.

Through it all, the Drifters always had this exquisite vocal blend. It was warm and round and full and dripping with chocolate. Since we were involved in the Drifters' career, it's probably not our place to declare their music immortal. But you have to say, they did pretty well.

80

Elvis Costello

By Liz Phair

Elvis Costello writes novels in three minutes. He gets inside your head, and he doesn't let go. I'd pay a great amount of money to audit a course taught by him. If you love Elvis Costello, it's because you love what he's thinking — the depth and breadth of his notice is astounding. Sometimes I wonder if he watches people on the Strand in London and makes up entire histories for them. ("This person didn't pass the bar and has thyroid problems." "They're jogging because they just went through a breakup.")

When I was a teenager, it was a career aim for many of my friends to have a song written about them by Elvis Costello. His songs about women and girls are devastating, like arrows to the heart. There are very few artists who can depict a woman's life, her thoughts and desires and her failings, like he can. Most rock songs about women are from the outside looking in: They say, "Babe, you're so hot, come sleep with me." Elvis' songs say, "I see you, and I know what you're doing." He catches us at our tricks, and that's always thrilling.

He's a poet with a punk's heart. There's a Jerry Lee Lewis flavor to the way he just gets in there and lets it rip: His rocking stuff has a lot of raw power, a real physicality. Even when it's just him and a piano onstage, it's powerful. When I first heard him, I was blown away that someone could just spit those words out without even hitting the right notes, with no holding back and no shame. Of course, the Attractions were really important to his music — if you're going to cram a whole book into one song, it helps to have a steady groove.

Nobody sounds like him. People imitate Stevie Wonder or whomever, but how many people can do Elvis Costello? Not bloody many. His melodies weave in and out and all over the place, and you can tell they just spring out of him. Finally, Elvis is the definition of a career artist — he's always coming up with a different sound, always challenging himself. All of his music tells you: You could come along for the ride — but I'm not stopping.