The top 100 musical artists ever — did VH1 get it right?

Posted: September 10, 2010 in Uncategorized
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All this week, VH1 unveiled its ranking of the 100 greatest artists in music history. You probably know by now that I love both music and rankings, so it should come as no surprise that I was glued to the TV for all five hours of it. I’m always fascinated by lists like this — whether it’s from VH1, Rolling Stone, DigitalDreamDoor, Pitchfork or whomever. I have many times considered (and even started) making my own, but I usually end up getting really frustrated and abandoning the idea.

I’m not going to make my own top 100 list this time, either, but I did decide to dissect VHI’s rankings. So here are my thoughts on who’s too high, who’s too low, who shouldn’t be on here at all and who was inexplicably omitted. Oh, and I did decide to rank my top 20 at the end. That wasn’t too frustrating. Like the show, we’ll start at 100.

100) Alicia Keys- I don’t really have anything against Keys — I actually like a few of her songs — but she doesn’t belong anywhere near the top 100.

99) Hall & Oates- They were popular, but that’s about it. Definitely not top 100 material.

98) Depeche Mode- They helped make electronic music popular, but that’s not really a good thing and it’s definitely not enough to make the top 100.

97) Pretenders- I like a couple of their songs, but I’m a little unclear on what exactly they did to warrant a spot on this list.

96) Journey- You might be surprised to learn that I actually like Journey. My stance: “Don’t Stop Believing” has become so overrated that everything else Journey did (especially their 70s stuff) has become underrated — they were actually a pretty talented band. I’m still not sure I’d put them in the top 100, but I don’t have a huge problem with it.

95) OutKast- Seems about right.

94) Mariah Carey- She has more No. 1 hits than anyone not named The Beatles. Whether she’s talented or not (I think not), you can’t deny her a spot on this list.

93) Pearl Jam- I’d have them at least 20 spots higher… especially considering how high Nirvana is.

92) LL Cool J- I don’t think so. There are at least 10 better hip-hop artists (including No. 95 OutKast) and not all of them are on this list.

91) Green Day- “Dookie” was a solid album. Everything since… not so much. No way they’re top 100.

90) Elvis Costello- Should easily be at least 30 spots higher.

89) Beastie Boys- I definitely wouldn’t put them higher than this. I could be talked into taking them off altogether, but I’ll keep them near the bottom of the list for now.

88) Bee Gees- Disco sucks, but the Bee Gees, like Mariah, deserve to be here simply because of their popularity.

87) George Michael- I’m just gonna assume this is a joke.

86) N.W.A.- Looks good to me.

85) The Band- I’d put them higher just because I’m a huge fan, but in reality, this is probably right around where they should be.

84) Curtis Mayfield- Given all the great soul artists who were omitted from this list, I’m kind of surprised Mayfield made it. This is a good spot for him.

83) Earth, Wind and Fire- Pretty much right where I’d have them.

82) Steely Dan- They have a couple really good songs (“Aja” and “Reelin’ in the Years”), but I definitely wouldn’t have them in the top 100.

81) ABBA- No way in hell.

80) Mary J. Blige- See No. 81.

79) Eminem- He’s popular, but he’s definitely not as good as some hip-hop artists who were left out. Still, ruling the past decade in terms of popularity is good enough to keep him here.

78) Judas Priest- Heavy metal gods, but I wouldn’t have them in the top 100.

77) Lynyrd Skynyrd- I have no problem with them being on the list, but having Skynyrd without having The Allman Brothers Band is ridiculous. Without the Allmans, there is no Skynyrd.

76) Run-D.M.C.- Should be at least 30 spots higher. Without question the most influential act in hip-hop history.

75) Rush- Extremely talented, but I don’t see how you can include them while omitting Yes. I’d have both on the list, but I don’t think I’d have Rush this high.

74) The Cure- They have a few good songs and they were a key cog in the post-punk movement of the 80s, but they’re not a top 100 artist.

73) Van Morrison- Should easily be in the top 50.

72) Janis Joplin- See No. 73.

71) R.E.M.- I’d probably have them a little higher. They put alternative rock on the map.

70) Def Leppard- Absolutely not. As I posted on twitter: Top 70 band with a one-armed drummer, yes. Top 70 artist of all-time, no.

69) Tupac Shakur- Looks about right, but no way he should be ahead of Run-D.M.C.

68) Otis Redding- Let the lack of respect for soul begin. Otis should be in the top 40.

67) Coldplay- (Repeatedly bangs head on keyboard)

66) Justin Timberlake- (Continues banging head on keyboard)

65) The Doors- Should be at least 30 spots higher. They’re the greatest American rock band of all-time.

64) Talking Heads- Looks good.

63) Notorious B.I.G.- I wouldn’t have him ahead of Tupac, but I have no qualms with him being on the list.

62) Genesis- If this referred to the Peter Gabriel-led Genesis of the 70s, I’d be cool with it. But I watched the show and VH1 chose to focus on the much crappier Phil Collins-led Genesis of the 80s. Both eras taken into account, I’d still have Genesis in the top 100, but not this high.

61) Cream- I’d probably go a little bit higher for the first supergroup, but this isn’t exactly a crime.

60) Whitney Houston- I’m not really sure what she’s done to deserve being put 34 spots higher than Mariah Carey, but whatever.

59) Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers- I love Tom Petty (in fact, I’m wearing a shirt from his 2008 tour as I type this), but I think this is a little too high. He probably belongs somewhere in the 70-90 range.

58) Cheap Trick- If you’re going to include Cheap Trick, you have to include Boston, The Cars, Styx, REO Speedwagon, etc. And none of them belong on this list.

57) Iggy & The Stooges- Glad to see they made the cut, but I wouldn’t put them this high.

56) KISS- Incredibly overrated. Shouldn’t be on the list.

55) Peter Gabriel- VH1 justified this by talking about his innovative music videos. I don’t think that should have any effect on this list, and therefore I would definitely not have Gabriel in the top 100… and especially not ahead of Genesis.

54) Public Enemy- This is a good place for them, but again, they shouldn’t be ahead of Run-D.M.C.

53) Little Richard- How he’s not in the top 20 is beyond me. He was every bit as influential as Elvis.

52) Beyoncé- Nope. Not even close to the top 100.

51) Billy Joel- About 30 spots too high.

50) Sade- Probably the most puzzling entry on here. They have done literally nothing to deserve being on this list.

49) Parliament-Funkadelic- Fine with me.

48) Rage Against The Machine- I kind of like RATM, but they absolutely do not deserve to be on this list, never mind in the top 50.

47) Jay-Z- VH1 talked about what he’s done as an executive in addition to what he’s done as a rapper. If you take that into account, it’s hard to argue with this ranking. If you don’t, he probably drops at least 20 spots.

46) Ramones- I’m not a big Ramones fan, but making punk popular is probably good enough to get into the top 50.

45) Al Green- I can’t believe I’m saying this, but this might be a soul artist VH1 actually overrated. I wouldn’t have Green in the top 60.

44) Joni Mitchell- Not sure I’d have her in the top 50, but I have no major problems with this.

43) Ray Charles- Belongs in the top 15 at the absolute worst.

42) Metallica- Should be at least 30 spots lower. This coming from a fan.

41) Van Halen- Maybe a little lower, but not bad.

40) The Police- Should be closer to the 60-80 range.

39) The Kinks- I’d be tempted to put them higher because they’re one of my 10 favorite artists, but this is probably right around where they belong.

38) Sly & The Family Stone- Seems fair. Random fun fact: I share a birthday with Sly Stone.

37) Fleetwood Mac- I’d probably have them 10-15 spots lower, but I’m OK with this.

36) Paul McCartney- I’m not sure Macca’s solo career should garner a spot in the top 40. I’d probably drop him 10-15 spots.

35) Johnny Cash- Can’t complain about this.

34) Tina Turner- Belongs at least 30 spots lower.

33) Guns N’ Roses- Borderline top 100. Definitely not top 40.

32) Black Sabbath- Good spot for them.

31) John Lennon- Better solo career than Paul. This is fine.

30) Aerosmith- At least 25 spots too high. This coming from a Bostonian.

29) Radiohead- Glad to see them getting some love, but this might be a little too much love. I’m not really complaining, though.

28) Elton John- Looks about right.

27) Aretha Franklin- Should be at least 10 spots higher.

26) Neil Young- One of my five favorite artists, but this is probably where he belongs.

25) The Velvet Underground- No problems with this.

24) Chuck Berry- Top 10 without question. Totally robbed.

23) AC/DC- At least 40 spots too high.

22) The Clash- Perfect placement.

21) Bruce Springsteen- See No. 22.

20) Marvin Gaye- Could be a couple spots higher, but no real complaints.

19) U2- I’d definitely have them below Bruce and The Clash, but they belong in the top 30.

18) Pink Floyd- Yep.

17) Queen- I like Queen, but I wouldn’t have them in the top 25.

16) Madonna- Deserves to be in the top 50 because of her popularity and ability to reinvent herself, but not top 25.

15) The Beach Boys- Could be a few spots higher, but as long as they’re in the top 15, I’m good.

14) Nirvana- Doesn’t belong in the top 30, regardless of their impact on the industry.

13) The Who- Should be in the top 10.

12) David Bowie- I’d have him at least 10 spots lower.

11) Bob Marley- Fine by me.

10) Stevie Wonder- Also fine by me.

9) James Brown- Should be in the top seven.

8) Elvis Presley- Top five at worst.

7) Prince- Doesn’t belong in the top 20. Although I’ll argue to the death that he belongs ahead of Michael Jackson.

6) Jimi Hendrix- Looks good to me. Maybe a couple spots lower.

5) Bob Dylan- I’d have him a couple spots higher, especially considering two of the artists VH1 has ahead of him.

4) Rolling Stones- Exactly where they belong. Well, numbers-wise at least. They don’t belong behind the next two artists.

3) Led Zeppelin- I love Led Zeppelin, but this is about five spots too high.

2) Michael Jackson- One of the greatest entertainers of all-time? Yep. One of the greatest dancers of all-time? You bet. One of the most popular singers of all-time? No doubt. But one of the greatest musical artists of all-time? Not a chance. He wasn’t a talented musician. He didn’t have a great voice, he didn’t play any instruments and he didn’t even write most of his songs. His shows were great visually, but they were far from great musically. Don’t you find it odd that he never released a live album like most great musicians? He only released live performances on video. Why? Because it wasn’t about the music. Now, you might say, “Well, Elvis wasn’t that talented either. Elvis didn’t write his own music either. Elvis was very much about image, too.” And I wouldn’t disagree with you. But here’s the difference — Elvis made rock and roll popular. He’s the reason all those great artists of the 60s and 70s wanted to be musicians. Without Elvis, there may have never been rock and roll as we know it. What exactly did Jackson make popular? Choreographed dancing in videos and on stage? Who exactly did he influence? Beyonce? Usher? Britney Spears? Justin Timberlake? Music would be better off without them. But can you imagine music without rock and roll? OK… rant over. For the record, I’d put Jackson somewhere in the 30-40 range.

1) The Beatles- Any list that doesn’t have them at the top immediately loses all credibility. Without going into all the details, they changed everything about music and have influenced everyone that has come along since. As one of the show’s panelists put it: “You can not possibly overstate The Beatles’ influence.” Oh yeah, they’re the most popular act of all-time, too.

Substitutes

You may have noticed that there were a lot of artists whom I said I would not have in the top 100. I went back and counted — there are 21 I’d take out. They are: Alicia Keys, Hall & Oates, Depeche Mode, The Pretenders, LL Cool J, Green Day, George Michael, Steely Dan, ABBA, Mary J. Blige, Judas Priest, The Cure, Def Leppard, Coldplay, Justin Timberlake, Cheap Trick, KISS, Peter Gabriel, Beyonce, Sade, and Rage Against the Machine.

That means there should be 21 artists I would add to the list. Here they are, with the range in which I’d put them in parentheses.

Buddy Holly (top 20)- Did more in a year and a half of performing than most artists could ever dream of doing in 50. Who knows what else he could’ve done if he wasn’t killed in a plane crash at age 22.

Sam Cooke (top 20)- The King of Soul. VH1 should be ashamed of itself for not including him.

Fats Domino (20-30)- Arguably the first rock and roll artist.

Bo Diddley (20-30)- Key figure in the transition from blues to rock and roll. Fifty-something years later and artists are still using the “Bo Diddley beat.”

Jerry Lee Lewis (30-40)- Another rock and roll pioneer. For some reason, VH1 just doesn’t seem to think the artists who invented rock and roll were actually important.

The Everly Brothers (30-40)- Brought country music into rock and roll and used vocal harmonies that have been copied ever since.

Simon & Garfunkel (40-50)- Helped make folk rock popular. And Paul Simon wrote some of the greatest lyrics ever.

Smokey Robinson & the Miracles (40-50)- Put Motown (another movement that VH1 simply chose to ignore) on the map.

Roy Orbison (50-60)- One of the greatest voices in music history.

The Grateful Dead (50-60)- They were the first jam band. Whether you like them or not, that’s kind of a big deal.

The Byrds (50-60)- Along with Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel, they helped fuse rock and folk.

Eric Clapton (60-70)- He’s already on the list once as a member of Cream, but his solo career and guitar virtuosity were just as significant.

The Allman Brothers Band (60-70)- Created Southern rock and were one of the first jam bands along with The Grateful Dead.

Frank Zappa (60-70)- Has quite possibly played more styles of music than anyone else in history. And was very good at pretty much all of them.

The Supremes (70-80)- The most successful Motown act and the most successful vocal group of all-time. Rivaled The Beatles in popularity during their peak.

The Temptations (70-80)- Another leading Motown group.

Miles Davis (70-80)- This list clearly includes all genres, so where’s the greatest jazz artist of all-time?

Muddy Waters (80-90)- The Father of Blues… another genre that was ignored.

B.B. King (80-90)- Hugely influential blues guitarist. Changed the way the instrument was played.

Four Tops (90-100)- Another group that made Motown what it was.

Yes (90-100)- One of the most talented bands of all-time and one of the bands that helped make progressive rock popular.

Ultimately, there are three major places VH1 and I disagree. I value the founders of rock and roll a lot more than they do, I value soul artists (which obviously includes Motown) a lot more than they do, and they value popularity more than I do.

My top 20

Like I said, I’m not going to rank 1-100, but just to clarify what the top of my list would look like, I decided to rank the top 20. Please note that there is a very big difference between my personal favorite artists, which I’ve ranked before, and the artists I think are the greatest of all-time.

1) The Beatles
2) Elvis Presley
3) Bob Dylan
4) The Rolling Stones
5) Chuck Berry
6) James Brown
7) The Who
8) Jimi Hendrix
9) Led Zeppelin
10) Ray Charles
11) Stevie Wonder
12) Bob Marley
13) The Beach Boys
14) Aretha Franklin
15) Little Richard
16) Buddy Holly
17) Sam Cooke
18) Marvin Gaye
19) Pink Floyd
20) Bruce Springsteen

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Comments
  1. doogie says:

    excellent job on your part. this top 100 list fails horribly, and i was thinking pretty much the exact same things on a lot of those artists and placings. and i’m glad that somebody else agrees that Michael Jackson was not great enough to be #2. since everyone is still obsessed with him because of his recent passing, i thought i was the only one who thought he wasn’t deserving of such a high placement. your own Top 20 also made much more sense.

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