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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.

41

The Doors

By Marilyn Manson

Jim Morrison said it best: "all the children are insane," and he meant it like I mean it. We are children revolted by the banality of what people think is sane. When Jim rambled, quite profoundly, "Rock & roll is dead," and "Hitler is still alive…. I slept with her last night," he knew then what we are choking on now. You can't change the world, and if you try, you just end up destroying it. We love all things to death. We leave the lights on, turn everything up to 10 and fuck everything we fear.

In 10th grade I was told to read No One Here Gets Out Alive, the biography of Jim Morrison. Everything I'm interested in now got started with that book. It made me want to be a writer, and I started with poetry and short stories. We don't know what was really going on in Morrison's head, but I liked trying to piece it together. The immortality of his words, the mystery of his existence appealed to my sense of fantasy. I found "Moonlight Drive" — particularly when accompanied by "Horse Latitudes" — scary and sexually mystifying, like Happy Days told by Ted Bundy. I read the poem in front of my 10th-grade English class, and it was as awe-inspiring then as it is now. Words like "mute nostril agony" and "carefully refined and sealed over" always stung in the corners of my eyes.

I think the Doors still fit in because they never fit in in the first place. They didn't have a bass player. The music often had nothing to do with what Morrison was singing. The keyboard held everything together. Most bands can still get through a show if the keyboardist breaks a finger. Not the Doors. Robby Krieger played very odd guitar parts if you compare him to Jimmy Page or Keith Richards. Yet all this combined into something unique that grabbed people's attention.

Morrison's voice was a beautiful pond for anything to drown in. Whatever he sang became as deep as he was. He had the unnameable thing that people will always be drawn to. I've always thought of the Doors as the first punk band, even more than the Stooges or the Ramones. They didn't sound anything like punk rock, but Morrison outshined everyone else when it came to rebellion and not playing by anyone else's rules. There are a lot of bands that seem to want to sound like the Doors filtered through grunge or neogrunge — or whatever it is. But it's all just ideas pasted on ideas, faded copies of copies. If you want to be like Jim Morrison, don't try. You can't be anything like Jim Morrison. It's about finding your own place in the world.

40

Simon and Garfunkel

By James Taylor

I remember when my older brother Alex and my youngest brother, Hugh, both brought home Simon and Garfunkel albums. The music stood by itself, quite apart from anything else around at the time. Simon and Garfunkel brought something new to music: They brought themselves. Through it all — whether they were together or not — they've remained a force in American music and culture. Their impact has been huge. To use a hackneyed phrase, they scored some of the most meaningful years of our lives. Think of how their songs worked in The Graduate — these were songs that spoke to a generation, in a motion picture that also spoke for a generation.

Paul Simon has just always been one of our best songwriters. Paul's breakthrough came at a time when there was so much in the air, and many of his songs were picked up as anthems. He creates an unusually rich and full world, and he has such a broad palette, from basic and elemental folk music, like "Scarborough Fair," to later songs with far greater sophistication and more worldly approaches on solo work, like "Something So Right" and "Still Crazy After All These Years." And Art Garfunkel is one of those great, rare voices. I would know it anywhere at the drop of a hat, in half a bar. Over the years, I've been able to work with Paul and Art — the first time was with Art on a song of mine called "A Junkie's Lament." Art inhabits the songs like Louis Armstrong did — you don't just get his version of a song, you get his take on it.

It is moving to see them sing together now after all these years. That kind of partnership is like a marriage, only more difficult and more public. You have two very strong, very willful individuals sharing this tight space. I was around Apple Records as the Beatles were disintegrating, and you realize that it's not an uncommon pattern. And perhaps because it wasn't something that came easy, it's all the more inspiring and reassuring to see that Paul and Art can still pull off such great reunions.

39

David Bowie

By Lou Reed

David Bowie's contribution to rock & roll has been wit and sophistication. He's smart, he's a true musician and he can really sing. He's got such a big range: I like the Ziggy Stardust voice, but he's got a lot of different voices. He's got his crooner voice, when he wants to. And he has a melodic sense that's just well above anyone else in rock & roll. Most people could not sing some of his melodies. He can really go for a high note. Take "Satellite of Love," on my Transformer album. There's a part at the very end where his voice goes all the way up. It's fabulous.

There had been androgyny in rock from Little Richard on up, but David put his own patina on it, to say the least. He bethought hard about that Ziggy character; he'd been studying mime, and he didn't do it just for laughs. He was very aware of stagecraft. He made an entire show out of that character — and then he left it behind. How smart can you get? Can you imagine if he had to keep doing Ziggy? I mean, if you listened to what critics and audiences say, you'd be playing four songs over and over again. David set himself up to do other characters, like the Thin White Duke. And his take on American soul music, on albums like Young Americans, was incredibly good; the original material he wrote was great.

I can't pick a favorite Bowie record. It always depends on my mood — any of the dance records; Ziggy Stardust; I always liked "The Bewlay Brothers," that track on Hunky Dory. And the albums he did with Brian Eno, like Low and "Heroes," are just phenomenal. He's always changing, so you never get tired of what he's doing. And I mean all the way up to his later records: "The Loneliest Guy" on his album Reality is a great song. Yet another one.

David and I are still friends after all these years, amazingly enough. We go to the occasional art show and museum together, and I always like working with him. I really love what David does. I remember seeing him play in New York on the Reality tour a few years back, and it was one of the greatest rock & roll shows I have ever seen. At least as far as white people go. Seriously.

38

John Lennon

By Lenny Kravitz

I loved the Beatles' music growing up, but I didn't become aware of John Lennon's solo music until I was making my first album, Let Love Rule. There was this guy who was going to manage me; when he heard the raw tapes of my early songs, like "Be," he said, "Have you ever heard John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band? Because your stuff sounds like him."

So I bought Plastic Ono Band, and I listened to it over and over for months. It's a monumental work of genius. I was blown away by how minimal it was, and how expressive it was. Lennon had just finished doing primal-scream therapy, and he was just unloading all this stuff, about his mother leaving him, about the Beatles and about who he was.

A lot of people identify themselves by their success instead of who they are as people. Lennon showed us who he was as a person. He had just come from being in the biggest group on the planet; most people in his position would say, "How do I keep this up? I don't want to come down off this pedestal." He didn't care; he got butt-naked on the cover of Two Virgins, with his dick hanging out.

On Plastic Ono Band, he stripped it down musically: He went into a studio with just a guitar, a bass, a piano and drums, and he made a raw record. The attitude and emotion of that album are harder than any punk rock I've ever heard. And the honesty of that music is why I became an enormous fan of his solo work, maybe even more than what he did with the Beatles. It inspired me and made me want to go deeper with my own songwriting.

As a guitarist, Lennon had a great feel — something that can outshine a guy with a million chops. He's not a virtuoso, he's not Jimi Hendrix, but if you listen to those early Beatles records, there are some serious guitar intricacies going on between him and George Harrison. One of my favorite Lennon solo tracks is "How Do You Sleep?" — the guitar is incredibly funky. Not many people remember that Lennon co-wrote "Fame" with David Bowie; he had a really cool funky side. If he were around today, I think he would have gotten interested in hip-hop. He'd have wanted to blend the different things going on in our culture.

Lennon was more than just a musician; he was more like a prophet. He stated his political point of view and spoke out against war, even when that meant he was being followed and hassled by the U.S. government. "Imagine" is one of the greatest songs ever written. It's like a church hymn, and it states his beliefs quite clearly. And more than anything, Lennon was an icon for peace. That's hard to find these days.

37

Roy Orbison

By K.D. Lang

I've always compared Roy Orbison to a tree: passive and beautiful yet extremely solid. He maintained a sense of humility and sensitivity and gentleness uncommon to his era. He wasn't effeminate but extremely gentle. He was someone you felt entirely safe with, whether you were listening to his records or being around him. It wasn't like Elvis: It wasn't like your loins were on fire or anything like that. It's more like Roy was a private place to go — a solace or a refuge.

He broke the mold of the Fifties tough-guy thing, and even the style of his music was a kind of fine art for somebody from Wink, Texas. It was cosmopolitan in a mysteriously soft and romantic way.

Roy Orbison was like a folk opera singer. I think he was influenced by Spanish opera in structure and in feel. He also loved to express his voice in this upper range, in falsetto. He was vulnerable and strong at the same time. He was extremely earnest in his voice and his appearance, and yet he had this veil of mystery to him.

In 1987, Roy and I recorded a version of "Crying" for a movie called Hiding Out. We ended up recording "Crying" in Vancouver, which is where I lived. I walked into the studio, and it was like staring at the huge image of the Marlboro Man on Sunset Boulevard — so immediately ominous and present. We were rehearsing the song in the studio with the band, and Roy and I happened to be sharing a mic. When we got to a part where we were singing at the same time, we both leaned into the mic and our cheeks touched. His cheek was so soft, and the energy was so amazing. Not sexual but totally explosive, like the chemistry of some sort of kinship. I'll never forget what that felt like. I can hear that voice right in my ear. His vibrato was sort of fast and had a small waver within it, and that's what gave him the vulnerable sound. That voice.

36

Madonna

By Britney Spears

I'm sorry, but I'd rather meet Madonna than the president of the United States.

Madonna has this thing about her that you can't explain — the thing that makes somebody a star. When she walks into the room, you just have to take notice. She's so comfortable with herself, and she's not afraid to live life to the fullest and to say whatever she feels, no matter what anyone thinks. There's something kind of childlike about that; it's a beautiful, amazing thing.

Madonna was the first female pop star to take control of every aspect of her career and to take responsibility for creating her image, no matter how much flak she might get. She's proved that she can do so many different things — music and movies and being a parent, too. Her music has become iconic: Songs like "Holiday" or "Live to Tell" are timeless — not just disposable hits. They feel like home. She has her spells of being moody and vibey and spiritual, but her words are so easy to relate to. She's a diva and does what she wants, but she's a loving person.

The first time I met her was when I flew to visit her at one of her shows in 2001. I walked into her dressing room, and her daughter, Lola, was there, and I felt really nervous. I said to Madonna, "Can I just hug you?" I was so stupid! But she was so nice about it. I would definitely not be here, doing what I'm doing, if it wasn't for Madonna. I remember being eight or nine years old, running around my living room singing and dancing and wanting so much to be like her. All my girlfriends still listen to her stuff. We're all mesmerized by her. Madonna's stage presence has inspired so many artists. You can see her influence in the recent generations of artists who have picked up some of her moves and have been influenced by her style.

Madonna has done so much, and she's been around so long, and the bitch still looks good! She's spent years in the public eye, and that can be really hard for anyone to deal with. But she dug deep and started writing from her heart. Madonna has so much light inside her, and she's so much more noticeable than all of the rest of us. She stuck to what she believed in and did what she felt. It's part of her art — to just be herself.

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 Around, one of the last albums John did, was terrific. His version of "Danny Boy" kills me every time.

I think he'll be remembered for the way he grew as a person and an artist. He went from being this guy who was as wild as Hank Williams to being almost as respected as one of the fathers of our country. He was friends with presidents and with Billy Graham. You felt like he should've had his face on Mount Rushmore.

30

Nirvana

By Iggy Pop

The first time I saw Nirvana was at the Pyramid Club, a rank, wonderful, anything-goes dive bar on Avenue A in New York. It wasn't known for having live bands; it was known more for cross-dressing and bar dancing. I had a photographer friend, and he told me, "There's a really hot band from Seattle you have to see. They're gonna play the Pyramid, of all places!"

You could smell the talent on Kurt Cobain. He had this sort of elfin delivery, but it was not naval gazing. He was jumping around and throwing himself into every number. He'd sort of hunch over his guitar like an evil little troll, but you heard this throaty power in his voice. At the end of the set he tossed himself into the drums. It was one of maybe 15 performances I've seen where rock & roll is very, very good.

After that, I bought Bleach, and listened to it in Europe and Asia on tour. I still like this album very much, but there was one song, "About a Girl," that's not like the rest of the album. It sounded like someone gave Thorazine to the Beatles. And I thought, "If he puts out a record full of that, he's gonna get really rich." And sure enough …

I met Kurt at a club in L.A. right before Nevermind came out. We took a picture and he said, "Come on, let's give the finger!" So we did. I bought Nevermind and I thought, "This has really got it." Nirvana genuinely achieved dynamics. They took you down, they took you up, and when they pressed a certain button, they took you over. They rocked without rushing and they managed melody without being insipid. It was emotional without sounding dated or corny or weak.

Some time later, Kurt reached out to me. I missed the call, but my wife took the message: "Kurt Cobain wants to go into the studio with you." See, I'm 113 years old now; I was about 72 in t