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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.

14

Led Zeppelin

By Dave Grohl

Heavy metal would not exist without Led Zeppelin, and if it did, it would suck. Led Zeppelin were more than just a band — they were the perfect combination of the most intense elements: passion and mystery and expertise. It always seemed like Led Zeppelin were searching for something. They weren't content being in one place, and they were always trying something new. They could do anything, and I believe they would have done everything if they hadn't been cut short by John Bonham's death. Zeppelin served as a great escape from a lot of things. There was a fantasy element to everything they did, and it was such a major part of what made them important. It's hard to imagine the audience for all those Lord of the Rings movies if it wasn't for Zeppelin.

They were never critically acclaimed in their day, because they were too experimental and they were too fringe. In 1969 and '70, there was some freaky shit going on, but Zeppelin were the freakiest. I consider Jimmy Page freakier than Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix was a genius on fire, whereas Page was a genius possessed. Zeppelin concerts and albums were like exorcisms for them. People had their asses blown out by Hendrix and Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, but Page took it to a whole new level, and he did it in such a beautifully human and imperfect way. He plays the guitar like an old bluesman on acid. When I listen to Zeppelin bootlegs, his solos can make me laugh or they can make me tear up. Any live version of "Since I've Been Loving You" will bring you to tears and fill you with joy all at once. Page doesn't just use his guitar as an instrument — he uses it like it's some sort of emotional translator.

John Bonham played the drums like someone who didn't know what was going to happen next — like he was teetering on the edge of a cliff. No one has come close to that since, and I don't think anybody ever will. I think he will forever be the greatest drummer of all time. You have no idea how much he influenced me. I spent years in my bedroom — literally fucking years — listening to Bonham's drums and trying to emulate his swing or his behind-the-beat swagger or his speed or power. Not just memorizing what he did on those albums but getting myself into a place where I would have the same instinctual direction as he had. I have John Bonham tattoos all over my body — on my wrists, my arms, my shoulders. I gave myself one when I was 15. It's the three circles that were his insignia on Zeppelin IV and on the front of his kick drum.

"Black Dog," from Zeppelin IV, is what Led Zeppelin were all about in their most rocking moments, a perfect example of their true might. It didn't have to be really distorted or really fast, it just had to be Zeppelin, and it was really heavy. Then there's Zeppelin's sensitive side — something people overlook, because we think of them as rock beasts, but Zeppelin III was full of gentle beauty. That was the soundtrack to me dropping out of high school. I listened to it every single day in my VW bug, while I contemplated my direction in life. That album, for whatever reason, saved some light in me that I still have.

I heard them for the first time on AM radio in the Seventies, right around the time that "Stairway to Heaven" was so popular. I was six or seven years old, which is when I'd just started discovering music. But it wasn't until I was a teenager that I discovered the first two Zeppelin records, which were handed down to me from the real stoners. We had a lot of those in the suburbs of Virginia, and a lot of muscle cars and keggers and Zeppelin and acid and weed. Somehow they all went hand in hand. To me, Zeppelin were spiritually inspirational. I was going to Catholic school and questioning God, but I believed in Led Zeppelin. I wasn't really buying into this Christianity thing, but I had faith in Led Zeppelin as a spiritual entity. They showed me that human beings could channel this music somehow and that it was coming from somewhere. It wasn't coming from a songbook. It wasn't coming from a producer. It wasn't coming from an instructor. It was coming from four musicians taking music to places it hadn't been before — it's like it was coming from somewhere else. That's why they're the greatest rock & roll band of all time. It couldn't have happened any other way.

13

Buddy Holly

By John Mellencamp

Buddy Holly was a complete and utter hillbilly. I'm very proud of that. So much of our musical heritage is from the country. People always ask me, "Why do you stay in Indiana?" Well, I have to. Just about every song, every sound that we emulate and listen to was created by a hillbilly, born out of the frustration of a small town where there ain't much to do in the evening. That's one thing that I loved about Buddy Holly.

Buddy Holly was one of the first great singer-songwriters — he wrote his own material and in the end was producing it, too. He came from such a rural area and was able to speak to so many people in so many locations. He was one of the first to get away from the Tin Pan Alley songwriting factory and communicate directly, honestly with his audience.

I was just a little kid when I first heard Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue." You may not understand what it was like being about nine years old in 1957 or '58, but it was quite a treat. All of this music was just coming out of nowhere — Memphis and Texas. I was in a band when I was in sixth grade, and we played "Not Fade Away." You shouldn't even be in a band if you haven't played that song. It's two chords, beautiful melody, with a nice message. Holly's songs never really left my consciousness. When I set up my iPod, there he was, those same songs that I've heard for all these years. They sound just as good as the first time I heard them.

Holly's melodies and arrangements were a huge influence on the Beatles. With the whirlwind they were on in 1964, the first thing John Lennon asked when he got to The Ed Sullivan Show was, "Is this the stage that Buddy Holly played on?" That shows a lot of quiet admiration. Listen to the songs on the first three Beatles albums. Take their voices off, and it's Buddy Holly. Same with the Rolling Stones.

Record companies encourage young artists to copy what's been there before. But nobody was pushing Holly in any direction. That was just all him and his instincts. Those songs are great, and some are only a minute and 25 seconds long. Think about delivering a song like that today. The magic that Buddy Holly created was nothing short of a miracle. The fact that he died at 22 is just ridiculous. That tells you all you need to know about just how focused and visionary he was.

12

The Beach Boys

By Lindsey Buckingham

The Beach Boys showed the way, and not just to California. Sure, they may have sold the California Dream to a lot of people, but for me, it was Brian Wilson showing how far you might have to go in order to make your own musical dream come true.

In the beginning, I was someone who grew up in California and loved the early music that he and the Beach Boys made. Later, I would relate to Brian's struggle as an artist against a machine that tended toward serving the bottom line — the industry attitude that if it works, run it into the ground. Music meant much more to him than that. He was trying to do something so much bigger than that with his teenage symphonies to God. In the process, he really rocked the boat and changed the world.

When the Beach Boys started, Brian was taking European sensibilities and infusing them into a Chuck Berry format. Those harmonies were based on the Four Freshmen, with a little church element added to it. He put all that on top of Chuck Berry rock & roll, and the result sounded so fresh. I remember hearing "Surfin' Safari" first when I was in sixth grade. It had the beat, the sense of joy, that explosion rock & roll gave to a lot of us. But it also had this incredible lift, this amazing kind of chemical reaction that seemed to happen inside you when you heard it.

Pet Sounds is the acknowledged masterpiece, and it's everything it's said to be, with Brian taking some of the influences he got from Phil Spector and making something all his own. But even before that there's Side Two of The Beach Boys Today!, which is really just one ballad after another and is for me one of the great sides on a rock album. Those are beautiful numbers — "Please Let Me Wonder," "Kiss Me Baby," "She Knows Me Too Well," "In the Back of My Mind" — that foreshadow Brian's angst and start exposing his vulnerability. A lot of what you find later on Pet Sounds or Smile, you could find in a different form early on.

Today it's nice to see that Brian's in a place where he can do what he wants without the pressure of selling or of having to be the support system for so many others. Because he gave the rest of us more than his fair share of good vibrations.

11

Bob Marley

By Wyclef Jean

What separates Bob Marley from so many other great songwriters? They don't know what it's like for rain to seep into their house. They wouldn't know what to do without their microwaves and stoves — to make a fire with wood and cook their fish next to the ocean. Marley came from the poverty and injustice in Jamaica, and that manifested itself in his rebel sound. The people were his inspiration. Straight up. Like John Lennon, he brought the idea that through music, empowerment and words, you can really come up with world peace. But it's hard to compare him to other musicians, because music was just one part of what he was. He was also a humanitarian and a revolutionary. His impact on Jamaican politics was so strong, there was an assassination attempt on his life. Marley was like Moses. When Moses spoke, people moved. When Marley spoke, they moved as well.

Marley almost single-handedly brought reggae to the world. When I was growing up in Haiti — where my father was a missionary and a church minister — we could barely get away with listening to Christian rock and definitely couldn't get away with any rap. When I was 14, I slipped on "Exodus," and my dad, who didn't speak English very well, asked me, "What's this song about?" I told him it was biblical, and it was about movement. The minute it reached his ears — the minute Marley's music reaches anybody's ears — he was automatically grooving. The vibe goes straight to your brain.

"Redemption Song" transcends time. "Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/ None but ourselves can free our minds/Have no fear for atomic energy/'Cause none of them can stop the time." It will mean the same thing in the year 3014. Today, people struggle to find what's real. Everything has become so synthetic that a lot of people, all they want is to grasp onto hope. The reason people still throw on Bob Marley T-shirts is because his music is one of the few real things left to grasp onto.

10

Ray Charles

Ray Charles is proof that the best music crosses all boundaries, reaches all denominations. He could do any type of music, and he always stayed true to himself. It's all about his soul.

His music first hit me when I heard a live version of "What'd I Say" on American Forces Network in Germany, which I used to listen to late at night. Then I started buying his singles. His sound was stunning — it was the blues, it was R&B, it was gospel, it was swing — it was all the stuff I was listening to before that but rolled into one amazing, soulful thing.

As a singer, Ray Charles didn't phrase like anyone else. He didn't put the time where you thought it was gonna be, but it was always perfect, always right. He knew how to play with time, like any great jazzman. But there was more to him than that voice — he was also writing these incredible songs. He was a great musician, a great record maker, a great producer and a wonderful arranger.

There's a reason they called Ray Charles "the Genius." Think of how he reinvented country music in a way that worked for him. He showed there are no limitations, not for someone as good as he is. Whatever Ray Charles did, whatever he touched, he made it his own. He's his own genre. It's all Ray Charles music now.

I always learn something from him. It's music that set a tough standard. For me, two albums that stand out are Ray Charles at Newport and Ray Charles in Person. Then there's Genius + Soul = Jazz with the Basie orchestra and Quincy Jones. And of course Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. There's so much to live up to — these days, you almost have to go backward to go forward.

In 2004, I did a duet with him on one of my songs, "Crazy Love." It felt fantastic. I always loved his singing, but I also connected with him on a soul level. I just felt his emotion. People like Ray Charles — and Sam Cooke, Bobby Bland and Solomon Burke — defined what soul was for me. It wasn't just the singing — it was what went into the singing. These were guys who put their souls on the line.

This music is way beyond marketing. This music is global, and its appeal is universal. Ray Charles changed music just by being himself — by doing what he did and translating it to millions of people with the force of his soul. That's his legacy. I think that the music of Ray Charles will probably outlive us all — at least I hope that it will.

9

Aretha Franklin

As a producer, I almost always addressed phrasing and enunciation with the singer, but in Aretha's case, there was nothing I could tell her. I would only be getting in her way. Nowadays, singers who want to be extra soulful overdo melisma. Aretha only used it a touch and used it gloriously because her taste was impeccable. She never went to the wrong place.

It wasn't her gospel training. Most young African-American singers get their musical training in church. Training can give you form, can give you tradition, can give you the cadence. When genius gets good training, it can expedite the process, but training isn't genius. Genius is who she is.

"Respect" had the biggest impact, with overtones for the civil rights movement and gender equality. It was an appeal for dignity combined with a blatant lubricity. There are songs that are a call to action. There are love songs. There are sex songs. But it's hard to think of another song where all those elements are combined.

Aretha wrote most of her material or selected the songs herself, working out the arrangements at home and using her piano to provide the texture. In this case, she just had the idea that she wanted to embellish Otis Redding's song. When she walked into the studio, it was already worked out in her head.

Otis came up to my office right before "Respect" was released, and I played him the tape. He said, "She done took my song." He said it benignly and ruefully. He knew the identity of the song was slipping away from him to her.

Aretha had a minor career at Columbia before coming to Atlantic. I don't think Columbia let her play the piano much. It's always been my belief that when a singer plays an instrument, you should let them play it on the record, even if the singer is not a virtuoso, because they're bringing another element to the recording. In Aretha's case, there was no compromise in quality. She was a brilliant pianist.

It is part of her genius. No one can copy her. She's all alone in her greatness.