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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.

35

Michael Jackson

By Antonio "L.A." Reid

Michael Jackson was the world's greatest entertainer. One of the most explosive performances I've ever witnessed was Jackson sliding across the stage at the Motown 25th-anniversary show. Just watching that made us all know: That's what greatness is, and anything that doesn't measure up to that is beneath greatness. Before him there were the Beatles and Elvis and Frank Sinatra; Michael Jackson takes his place right alongside those greats.

I was born around the same time as Michael, and I was one of the original fans. I first saw him at the Ohio State Fair, when I was very young; the Jackson 5 were performing with the Commodores. Michael came on, and that voice of his rang over the whole fairground. I was deeply touched by that voice from the very beginning.

"Billie Jean" is the most important record he made, not only because of its commercial success but because of the musical depth of the record. It has more hooks in it than anything I've ever heard. Everything in that song was catchy, and every instrument was playing a different hook. You could separate it into 12 different musical pieces and I think you'd have 12 different hits. Every day, I look for that kind of song.

Michael has influenced so many artists, some of whom are picking up on the grandeur and showmanship of his live performances. You can see his influence in his sister Janet, in Justin Timberlake, Usher, Britney Spears, and in Justin Bieber and so many others. You can see his influence in the dance moves — the syncopated choreography — that a lot of young artists use. And a lot of them have picked up his work ethic. When you look at a Justin Timberlake production or an Usher production, you really see that they took a page out of Michael's book; they went to rehearsal, and they must've worked eight hours a day, because their shows are flawless, as Michael's shows were flawless.

Late in his life, there were many, many people who thought of Michael as a spectacle, and it was sad. The world without Michael Jackson is a very, very different world. And I think we should all feel very blessed that an artist of that caliber came into our lives, because he enriched our lives.

34

Neil Young

By Flea

There's a rare contradiction in Neil Young's work. He works so hard as a songwriter, and he's written a phenomenal number of perfect songs. And, at the same time, he doesn't give a fuck. That comes from caring about essence. There can be things out of tune and all wild-sounding and not recorded meticulously. And he doesn't care. He's made whole albums that aren't great, and instead of going back to a formula that he knows works, he would rather represent where he is at the time. That's what's so awesome: watching his career wax and wane according to the truth of his character at the moment. It's never phony. It's always real. The truth is not always perfect.

I can't say enough about how much I love Crazy Horse. The sound is so deep, the groove is so deep — even when they're off, it still sounds great, because they feel it so much. I don't usually go for that approach. I like Sly and the Family Stone, Miles Davis and Mingus. I like consummate steady musicianship. I grew up on jazz. I didn't listen to rock music until I played in my first rock band when I was in high school. I went from progressive to Hendrix to funk to full-on L.A. punk. That's when I had the realization that emotion and content, no matter how simple, were valuable. A great one-chord punk song became as important to me as a Coltrane solo, and I've had the same feeling about Neil Young. He changed the way I thought about rock music. As a bass player, I used to be into very boisterous, syncopated and rhythmically complex songs. After hearing Neil, I appreciated simplicity, the poignancy of "less is more."

My favorite Neil album is Zuma, with "Pardon My Heart" and "Lookin' for a Love": "But I hope I treat her kind/And don't mess with her mind/When she starts to see the darker side of me." And "Tell Me Why," on After the Gold Rush — when he says, "Is it hard to make arrangements with yourself/When you're old enough to repay but young enough to sell?" it feels like me. I know I'm not alone. Tonight's the Night is probably the greatest raw rock record ever made, on a level with the Stooges' Fun House or any Hendrix album. It's such a mess, with stuff recorded so loud that it distorts. The background vocals are completely out of tune. And I wouldn't change a note. It's the spirit of what rock music is, and it's the reason to play rock music.

Neil is the guy I look at when I think about getting older in a rock band and still having dignity and relevance and honesty. He's never, ever sold out, and he's never pretended to be anything other than what he is. The Chili Peppers get offers all the time to sell songs for commercials. Maybe we could whore ourselves out for the right price someday. But I always think, "Would Neil Young do this?" And the answer is no. Neil Young wouldn't fuckin' do it.

33

The Everly Brothers

By Paul Simon

The roots of the Everly Brothers are very, very deep in the soil of American culture. First of all, you should know that the Everly Brothers were child stars. They had a radio show with their family, and their father, Ike, was an influential country guitar player, so he attracted other significant musicians to the Everlys' world — among them Merle Travis and Chet Atkins, who was instrumental in getting the Everlys on the Grand Ole Opry. Perhaps even more powerfully than Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers melded country with the emerging sound of Fifties rock & roll. They were exposed to extraordinary country-roots music, and so they brought with them the legacy of the great brother groups like the Delmore Brothers and the Blue Sky Boys into the Fifties, where they mingled with the other early rock pioneers and made history in the process.

The Everly Brothers' impact exceeds even their fame. They were a big influence on John Lennon and Paul McCartney — who called themselves the Foreverly Brothers early on — and, of course, on Simon and Garfunkel. When we were kids, Artie and I got our rock & roll chops from the Everlys. Later, as Simon and Garfunkel, we put "Bye Bye Love" on Bridge Over Troubled Water, and much later, Phil and Don both sang on the song "Graceland."

Before the Everly Brothers joined Artie and me on the road in 2003, Phil and Don had actually quietly retired three years earlier. They basically came out of retirement for us. I said, "Phil, look, if you're going to retire, you might as well come out one more time and take a bow and let me at least say what it is that you meant to us and to the culture."

You know, the Everlys have a long history of knocking each other down, as brothers can do. So in a certain sense, it was hilarious that the four of us were doing this tour, given our collective histories of squabbling. And it's amazing, because they hadn't seen each other in about three years. They met in the parking lot before the first gig. They unpacked their guitars — those famous black guitars — and they opened their mouths and started to sing. And after all those years, it was still that sound I fell in love with as a kid. It was still perfect.

32

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles

By Bob Seger

I used to go to the Motown revues, and the Miracles always closed the show. They were that good, and everybody knew it. Not flash at all. The Supremes had bigger hits. The Temptations had the better dance moves. The Miracles did it with pure music.

Back then the radio played the rougher stuff, like "Do You Love Me," by the Contours, only at night. Smokey Robinson — they played him all day. Everybody loved his songs, and he had a leg up on all the other singers, with that slightly raspy, very high voice. Smokey was smoky. He could rasp in falsetto, which is hard to do and perfect for a sad ballad like "The Tears of a Clown" or "The Tracks of My Tears."

Smokey wrote his own stuff, so he had an originality or individualism that maybe the other Motown greats didn't. He was a lyric man as well as a melody man, a musicians' musician. It's kinda like Hollywood, where you have the star, and then you have the actors' actor. Gene Hackman — when was the last time that guy gave a bad performance? Smokey was the Gene Hackman of Motown.

I grew up in the black neighborhoods of Ann Arbor, Michigan, so I didn't think in terms of black music or white music. It was all just music to me. Smokey's first hit, "Shop Around," was one of the first records I bought. Later on, when my brother went into the service and I was the sole support of my mother, I was playing bars six nights a week, five 45-minute sets a night. This was '63-'67, and I could make the most money playing in a trio. We had a medley of six Smokey songs that we played at least twice every night: "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," "Shop Around," "Bad Girl," "Way Over There" and a couple of others. It was a survival move — the people demanded it. Also, if you were after a girl in the audience, it was always a good idea to do some Smokey.

Smokey was also known as the nicest guy at Motown, which you hear in his voice. I used to do a Canadian television show called Swingin' Time, and everyone from Detroit would show up: the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations. All of them nice people, but Smokey was particularly a gentleman. I saw him again around '87 at an awards show. I was able to tell him how much I appreciated his writing, and all the money I made playing his songs in bars. I have great memories. Thank you, Smokey.

31

Johnny Cash

By Kris Kristofferson

Johnny Cash was a biblical character. He was like some old preacher, one of those dangerous old wild ones. He was like a hero you'd see in a Western. He was a giant. And he never lost that stature. I don't think we'll see anyone like him again. Of course, the first thing he'll be remembered for is the power and originality of his music. The first time I heard Johnny Cash was when he released "I Walk the Line" in 1956. It was unlike anything I'd ever heard. Elvis had had a lot of hits by that point, but "I Walk the Line" was completely different. It didn't sound much like any of the country music that was popular at the time, either. There was always a kind of dark energy around John and his music. My first hero, when I was a kid, was Hank Williams, and he had a similar energy. You could tell they were both wild men.

As a songwriter, I've always loved his lyrics. At the beginning of his career, John released a bunch of powerful songs in a very short time. For me, the best one was always "Big River." It's so well-written, so unlike anything else. The lines don't even seem to rhyme. "I met her accidentally in St. Paul, Minnesota/And it tore me up every time I heard her drawl." His imagery was so powerful: "Then you took me to St. Louis later on, down the river/A freighter said she's been here/But she's gone, boy, she's gone/I found her trail in Memphis/But she just walked up the bluff/She raised a few eyebrows, and then she went on down alone."

The first time I saw John live, I was on leave from the Army, visiting Nashville. He was playing the Grand Ole Opry, and I was watching from backstage — and he was the most exciting performer I'd ever seen. At the time, he was skinnier than a snake, and he was just electric. He used to prowl the stage like a panther. He looked like he might explode up there. And in fact, there were times when he did. One night at the Opry, he knocked out all of the footlights. I think they banned him for a while after that. But they banned Hank Williams, too. They were a pretty conservative crowd.

The main thing about John, though — the thing that everybody could sense — was his integrity, the integrity of his relationship with his music, with his life and with other people. He stood up for Bob Dylan when everyone in the music business was criticizing Dylan for going electric. And he did the same for me, in the Eighties, when I was taking a lot of criticism for going down to Nicaragua. That's the kind of guy he always was. He stood up for the underdog.

I thought that The Man Comes Aro