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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.

91

Tom Petty

By Stevie Nicks 

In 1976, I'd been in Fleetwood Mac for about a year when I heard Tom Petty's debut. I became a fan right then. I loved the way Tom's Florida swamp-dog voice sounded in cahoots with Mike Campbell's guitar and Benmont Tench's keyboards. Tom had the same influences we had — the Byrds, Neil Young, Crosby, Stills and Nash — but he dropped in lots of serious old blues. And Tom is such a great singer and so charismatic onstage. I became such a fan that if I hadn't been in a band myself, I would have joined that one.

When I started doing my first solo album, Bella Donna, my first thought was, "Who produces Tom Petty?" When they said Jimmy Iovine, I got Jimmy, because I wanted my solo work to be as much like Tom's as possible.

I first met Tom in the studio, and he was pretty much what I expected. There's not a fake bone in his body. Jimmy and Tom decided to give me "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around," which they had written with Campbell. When they showed it to me, I was like, "Is this the right thing to do? I only get 11 songs and one of them won't be mine." And both Tom and Jimmy said to me, in a brutally honest way, "You don't have a single on this record. And here's a single for you."

Tom is a great and loyal friend, but he's also honest like that. In 1994, I had just gotten out of rehab, and Tom and I had dinner. I wanted to make a new record but I was scared. I said to him, "Will you help me write a song or two?" I didn't really expect the reaction I got, which was, "No, I won't. You are one of the premier songwriters in this business. Go home and turn off the radio. Don't be influenced by anything. Just write some great songs — that's what you do." He reinforced that I was still Stevie Nicks. I wrote a song about him I've never recorded, but I will someday. It goes, "Sometimes he's my best friend, even when he's not around."

In 2006, I did 27 shows with him. Tom made me a little platinum sheriff's badge that had 24-karat gold and diamonds across the top and said "To Our Honorary Heartbreaker, Stevie Nicks." On the back it says "To the Only Girl in Our Band." I keep it on my black velvet top hat. It goes with me everywhere. It's probably the most beautiful piece of jewelry a man has ever given me, ever.

90

Carlos Santana

By Henry Garza of Los Lonely Boys

Carlos Santana's music is a family thing for Chicanos. It's what you listen to when you're all hanging out: Drinking some beers, listening to "Oye Como Va" and cooking some barbecue is the best thing in the world. His music hits right to the pump — right to the heart. He's a pioneer of Latin rock & roll: His music was something new, but it was intertwined with everything else that was out there at the time — Sixties rock, Latin jazz and more. We're trying to do the same thing with Los Lonely Boys — make a lot of different types of music into something our own — but he did that first. He incorporated his culture into the music, and he mixed English and Spanish in the lyrics.

Everything on a song like "Black Magic Woman" works: the keyboards, the congos, the drums, the vocals. Carlos isn't the lead singer, but he is the maestro. Of course, the best thing about all his albums is his guitar. He's one of the greatest players who ever lived. His guitar has a very distinctive sound — it's like a fingerprint. His tone just bleeds through everything. His playing is both simple and complicated — he can communicate with just one or two notes. He speaks languages through his music that people can understand in any country, any language.

Those first three albums — Santana, Abraxas, Santana III — are really special to me. You could hear his ethnicity in his music — even when he's playing like some blues cat, he still sounds like Santana. And his music always has that rhythm. It makes you want to get your girlfriend and go to a dance in your lowrider. Some people were confused after that by his Seventies music, when he became jazzier. But he was just experimenting, learning more. And then his comeback with Supernatural shows how enduring his talent is.

Santana has a really good message to send to the human spirit. He once said to us, "You want to be like emissaries of light. When you're up on that stage or when you record, you want to be a tool that light shines through to everybody."

You don't want to dwell in darkness. You want to go toward the light. And Santana is the light.

89

The Yardbirds

By Steven Tyler

Listen to "Somebody," a song I wrote for Aerosmith's first album: It's all from the Yardbirds. They were the shit to us, out of all the British bands in the Sixties. The Yardbirds were a bit of a mystery. They had an eclecticism — the Gregorian chant-ness of the vocals, the melodic diversity, the way they used guitar feedback. I loved that weirdness.

In the Sixties, I was in a band called Chain Reaction. We got to know the Yardbirds because they played at Staples High School in Westport, Connecticut, in 1966. We had a friend, Henry Smith, who had been our manager for a while, and he had gone to school there. He called me and said, "Steven, the Yardbirds are playing here, and you can open up." It was the lineup with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, who was playing bass on that tour. We waited all day for them to arrive. I grabbed their amps, they grabbed ours. We carried each other's gear in, because back then, that's what you did. Hence began the rumor that I was a roadie for the Yardbirds.

They did "Shapes of Things," "Beck's Boogie," among other songs. I was in such awe. They played like no other band. They weren't concerned with clothes or looks or hit singles. Their thing was "What do we do with these sounds?" They did things with harmonics — minor thirds and fifths — that created this ethereal, monstrous sound.

You hear it in every song — the way they could take the blues and turn it into a pop song like "For Your Love," then something psychedelic like "Shapes of Things," which has that weird middle. You can hear the click when Beck hits his fuzz box. Page, in the end, was the one who took those ideas all the way with Led Zeppelin. The two shows I remember where I just sat with my mouth open was that Yardbirds show, and Led Zeppelin at the Boston Tea Party in 1969.

As a singer, the thing I got out of the Yardbirds was that you don't have to have a great voice. It's all about attitude. He was a white boy who pushed it to the max. And he was a great harmonica player. You never heard Jagger hanging out on a single note the way Keith Relf could.

The shame is, I know how great the Yardbirds were. But I don't think everyone else knows it. The Yardbirds' music is a gold mine waiting to be stumbled upon. Aerosmith did, because we grew up in that era. The riff in "Walk This Way" is just us trying to explore the blues in the Yardbirds model. What the Yardbirds did is something you don't hear in today's blue-plate-special, cookie-cutter music. Everything is so canned and sliced up now. This was back when a band was a band. You had all those personalities, and they were all truly playing together. And I don't hear that today. The day of those bands, that wild stepping out, is gone.

88

Jay-Z

By Ezra Koenig

Somewhere between LOL and FML there was "TRL." MTV's Total Request Live debuted in September 1998. The early TRL charts were dominated by 'N Sync, the Backstreet Boys, Korn and their respective biters. Then, six weeks in, Jay-Z's "Can I Get A … " video debuted at Number 10. It wasn't the beginning of his career as a rapper, but it was the beginning of his career as a major force in pop music.

Mainstream radio and TV presented the late-Nineties teenager with a weirdly extreme choice between aggro rock played by men in tank tops and mushy ballads sung by slightly smaller men in tank tops; Jay-Z presented a much-needed alternative. This is not to say that Jay-Z never wore tank tops, but he was (and continues to be) an exceedingly rare combination of intelligence, weirdness, seriousness and pop appeal. Go look back at those TRL charts and it's not hard to tell why a generation of musicians, critics and fans became so deeply connected to the lyrics of a dude who, supposedly, was describing a world that at least 50 percent of his fans "couldn't relate to."

In my lifetime, Jay-Z has, by far, been the most artful and exciting musician to consistently make hits, and I mean real hits — Top 10 singles deep into his career, like "Empire State of Mind." How many artists make it 15 years without embarrassing themselves, let alone while maintaining their relevancy?

I remember getting chills watching him perform "On to the Next One" at Coachella. He was wearing all black and standing in front of a giant video wall. I interpret that song as both an ode to creative ingenuity and a critique of infinite-growth capitalism. Admittedly, I was reading a lot about peak oil at the time, but c'mon, who else can inspire a crowd of 100,000 to throw their arms in the air while offering each individual brain in that crowd the opportunity to think critically about language and the state of the world today?

His lyrics are deep enough to demand exegesis (see: Decoded), at times, cute and playful enough to be memorized by every "mean girl" at my high school (see: his verse on Mariah Carey's "Heartbreaker"). On "Public Service Announcement," he described himself as being like "Che Guevara with bling on." Some people found this to be in bad taste, but it doesn't feel too off the mark to me. At the very least, I don't think anyone will take issue with the next line: "I'm complex."

87

Gram Parsons

By Keith Richards

Like I know the blues, Gram Parsons knew country music — every nuance, every great country song that was ever written. And he could express it all — the music from Nashville and Bakersfield, California, the stuff from Texas — in his singing and songwriting. But he also had intelligence and honesty. That's the kind of guy I like to hang with. Also, he loved to get stoned. At the time, that was an added plus.

I first met Gram in 1968, when the Byrds were appearing in London — I think it was a club called Blazes. I knew the Byrds from Mr. Tambourine Man on; the Stones had worked some shows in California with them back then. But when I saw them at Blazes with Gram, I could see this was a radical turn. I went backstage, and we hooked up. Then the Byrds came through London again, on their way to South Africa. I was like, "Man, we don't go there." The sanctions and the embargo were on. So he quit the Byrds, right there and then. Of course, he's got nowhere to stay, so he moved in with me.

Basically, we hung around together, like musicians do. We'd spend hours and hours at the piano, swapping ideas. Gram and I both loved the songs of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant — the Everly Brothers stuff they wrote. We both loved that melancholy, high-lonesome shit. We were always looking for the next heart-tugger, looking to pull that extra heartstring.

As a songwriter, Gram worked very much like I do, which is to knock out a couple of chords, start to spiel and see how far it can go, rather than sitting around with a piece of paper and a pen, trying to make things fit neatly together. But he would also work very hard — harder than I ever did — on honing it down.

Mick and Gram never really clicked, mainly because the Stones are such a tribal thing. At the same time, Mick was listening to what Gram was doing. Mick's got ears. Sometimes, while we were making Exile on Main Street in France, the three of us would be plonking away on Hank Williams songs while waiting for the rest of the band to arrive. Gram had the biggest repertoire of country songs you could imagine. He was never short of a song.

The drugs and drinking — he was no better or worse than the rest of us. He just made that one fatal mistake — taking that one hit after he cleaned up, still thinking he could take the same amount. And it was too fucking much. But he didn't get into dope because of us. He knew his stuff before he met us.

I think he was just getting into his stride when he died. His actual output — the number of records he made and sold — was pretty minimal. But his effect on country music is enormous. This is why we're talking about him now. But we can't know what his full impact could have been. If Buddy Holly hadn't gotten on that plane, or Eddie Cochran hadn't turned the wrong corner, think of what stuff we could have looked forward to, and be hearing now. It would be phenomenal.

In a way, it's a matter of lost love. Gram was everything you wanted in a singer and a songwriter. He was fun to be around, great to play with as a musician. And that motherfucker could make chicks cry. I have never seen another man who could make hardened old waitresses at the Palomino Club in Los Angeles shed tears the way he did.

It was all in the man. I miss him so.

86

Tupac Shakur

By 50 Cent

Every rapper who grew up in the Nineties owes something to Tupac. People either try to emulate him in some way, or they go in a different direction because they didn't like what he did. But whatever you think of him, he definitely developed his own style: He didn't sound like anyone who came before him.

My favorite Tupac album is The Don Killuminati. It was recorded after he was shot and spent time in prison. It was like a doctor told him he was going to die, and he was trying to get it all down on paper. That's something the average rapper just could not do: build an entire album around that concept, and stay in that negative space. Everybody knows that they're going to die. But after you're in a life-threatening situation, you think about it a little more.

Tupac's aggressive records are my favorite. "Hail Mary" is just perfect: "Picture paragraphs unloaded/Wise words being quoted." Most artists now just aren't smart enough to write that, or honest enough to write a line like, "I ain't a killer but don't push me." These days rappers will just tell you, "I'll kill you."

Tupac was like a camera. It's incredible how much he wrote — how much he documented. To me, 'Pac was more of a poet than a rapper. You can always tell when you're hearing Tupac verse. He wrote those lyrics without any music. Notorious B.I.G. was more melody-driven — I'm sure he wrote his shit without a pen, and over the music — but 'Pac was just hashing out his life. The thing was, he was doing that when the public eye was on him, and everything he was hashing out just expanded, and that's when things got out of control.

All of us on the East Coast loved Tupac. The music was all that mattered. That East Coast/West Coast feud was just personal beef. Now that he's not here, he's bigger than ever. I can still listen to two or three Tupac CDs straight. Sometimes I put on Tupac's best songs, followed by Biggie's best songs. Then I get ready to go into my next project.

Laurence Fishburne told me once that he didn't like Tupac. He told me it was because Tupac was so much smarter than everyone around him. He said he didn't like the way Tupac behaved because he knew that Tupac knew better. I understood what he meant. But I still gave him a look like he was bugging.

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'.