Just how Bad was VH-1's 100 Greatest Artists of All Time?

Beware the dangers of channel surfing: Recently I stumbled across a rebroadcast of VH-1's most recent 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, originally broadcast in 2010. VH-1 has of course appointed itself both curator and arbiter of the history of the Rock Era, and it has proved to be impressively incompetent in this regard, as should be evident from just the first hour of this five-hour televised train wreck. But just how bad could this particular countdown be?


First, let's admit that the fun of countdown shows is to argue with the list. No one is going to agree completely with the rankings, and the real enjoyment comes from re-ordering whatever list is proposed. However, with the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, there is no re-ordering to be done, at least by me, because to do so is akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic—in the case of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, the advertised premise was fundamentally flawed and began floundering from the launch.


Just seeing the first five artists, meaning those ranked from Number 100 to Number 96, on the VH-1 list—Alicia Keys, Hall and Oates, Depeche Mode, the Pretenders, and Journey—should lead you to suspect that the terms "greatest," "artist," and most especially "all time" had the loosest of interpretations. For me, the term "all time" is the iceberg that sinks this particular ship of fools.


When I hear the term "all time," I immediately think "in the history of humanity." You could amend that to "in the recorded history of humanity" to further restrict the time frame, and perhaps even "since humanity began making music" to restrict it even further—although it appears likely that prehistoric civilizations began making music 50,000 years ago, so let's stick with when humanity began recording its legacy with the invention of writing 6000 years ago, which is still a long stretch of time.


However, the ahistorical, self-absorbed, hyperbolic VH-1 and its audience defines "all time" as having a starting point in the early 1950s because that is as far back as the list goes. Furthermore, all the artists on the list are Western artists—ignoring most of the world's population, particularly the Chinese and the Indians, who compose two-sevenths of that population alone, and who have had thriving pop-music industries for some time now. So, really, a more accurate title for the series would be 100 Greatest Western Artists of the Rock Era, with the Rock Era understood to be from circa 1955 to the present. But even that is not entirely accurate because there are no jazz or modern classical artists on the list, and apart from token appearances by Johnny Cash (Number 35) and Bob Marley (Number 11), no country or reggae artists, either. (I'm not even counting the absence of other musical forms such as the array of Latin styles.) So, the title becomes 100 Greatest Western Pop, Rock, and Soul Artists of the Rock Era. That doesn't really carry the punch advertisers of beer, pimple cream, and mobile phone minutes would wish for the audience, does it? (By the way, the complete VH-1 list is easily available via a web search; you can get it straight from the horse's, ah, mouth on the VH-1 website.)


Perhaps I'm being overly critical. After all, we are talking about a commercial television program aimed at a primary audience that believes that world history began with the terror attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. Moreover, VH-1 assures us that a panel of 200 "music experts" and musicians compiled the list. Combined with the on-screen parade of the usual has-beens, wannabes, and never-weres providing their incisive "analysis" of the artists, you might be excused if this onslaught of chowder-headed vapidity would lead you to think that the Apocalypse must be nigh, and that wondering why Mary J. Blige (Number 80) is ranked higher than Elvis Costello (Number 90), or why Rage against the Machine (Number 48) is ranked higher than Cream (Number 61), is entirely beside the point if your IQ is even slightly above room temperature.


Stuck among the keen insights of such musical luminaries as Natasha Bedingfield and Sir Mix-a-Lot were a number of red-carpet ambushes, wherein a microphone was stuck in the faces of celebs attending unidentified galas as they were asked to name "the greatest musical artist of all time." In these encounters, only Nicholas Cage had the presence of mind to begin a list with "Bach, Beethoven, [and] Wagner" before rattling off a number of rock artists. Of all the commentary in the five hours it took to present this list, only Nicholas Cage understood that "all time" just might possibly mean "before the audience's grandparents were born." (And having been dragged recently to see Cage in the awful Ghost Rider sequel, let's acknowledge that the bar to this understanding is not that high.)


This is exactly my point: VH-1 deliberately chose to title its series the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, and with respect to the "all time" part, it failed spectacularly with that title. To consider Green Day (Number 91), Coldplay (Number 67), Billy Joel (Number 51), Tina Turner (Number 34), AC/DC (Number 23), or Queen (Number 17) as among the 100 greatest musical artists of all time is to perpetuate the current epidemic of ignorance that threatens to hasten the end of our civilization. Now, that might sound hyperbolic, but I don't think so: "Civilization" refers to "an advanced state of human society, in which a high level of culture, science, industry and government has been reached." Through its cavalier use of the term "all time," VH-1 is perpetuating a blinkered view of cultural history that effaces virtually all of that history except for a narrow band of time and talent that amounts to, as I've noted, the 100 greatest Western Pop, Rock, and Soul artists of the Rock Era. And even within that narrow band . . .


. . . Ray Charles is listed as Number 43, while Stevie Wonder is listed as Number 10, Prince as Number 7, and Michael Jackson as Number 2. Call me a stickler for historical cause-and-effect, but without Ray Charles, you don't have Stevie Wonder, Prince, and Michael Jackson, at least not as we know them. And without Elvis Presley, listed as Number 8, you might not have a list to argue about in the first place.


To devise a list that properly evaluates the vast number of candidates and then decides who deserves to be included on a list of the greatest artists of all time requires learned music scholars and serious musicians familiar with many different musical forms from across the globe and from all periods of human history. However, an undertaking like that is much more in line with a PBS series than a VH-1 series. Furthermore, I am hardly the person to undertake that monumental task single-handedly. However, having bellyached about VH-1 and its laughable hubris up to now, I do propose a remedy of sorts.


Below are two lists. One is the list of the ten greatest artists of the Rock Era (again, defined as ca. 1955 to the present). The other is the list of the ten greatest artists in Western music since the Baroque Era, which began in 1600. That latter list in particular is an example of my own hubris, but I think it offers a more considered overview of "the greatest artists of all time" than does VH-1's list—and you don't have to suffer the "insights" of Sheryl Crow or Sebastian Bach along with it.


Make no mistake: The idea of compiling these kinds of lists is a worthy one—these kinds of evaluations do put our cultural history into perspective. Readers of Not in Hall of Fame understand this because the primary purpose of the site is to evaluate legacy. And if VH-1 ever got serious about presenting a series using thoughtfulness instead of vapidity, it might earn some credibility. But for its arrogant claim to have presented the "100 greatest artists of all time" VH-1 deserves to be hoist by its own petard. Here's to happy hoisting.




How exactly do you determine who are the "greatest artists"? I think that five criteria can help to make determinations as objective as possible: innovation, influence, popularity, crossover appeal, and legacy. Taken together, these criteria eliminate many artists because not many artists can excel in all five criteria.


As an amateur historian, I lean toward cause-and-effect: If x had not occurred, then y could not have happened the way that it did. So, my choices are biased toward historical consequence: Artists who inspired those who followed them are the ones I consider to be the greatest. Without them, the subsequent artists would not have been possible.


Honorable mentions Numbers 25 to 11 (sounds like the title to a Bob Dylan song): 25) the Clash, 24) Black Sabbath, 23) Neil Young, 22) Pink Floyd, 21) Johnny Cash, 20) Smokey Robinson, 19) Sly and the Family Stone, 18) David Bowie, 17) Bruce Springsteen, 16) the Beach Boys, 15) Prince, 14) Michael Jackson, 13) the Who, 12) Stevie Wonder, 11) Jimi Hendrix.


10. Public Enemy


(Number 54 on VH-1's list.)


Probably the diciest pick on my list because I'm relatively ignorant about hip-hop—but you cannot ignore one of the two most dominant popular music forms (heavy metal being the other) of the last three decades, one that has international appeal. When it premiered in the mid-1980s, Public Enemy introduced the strongest measure yet of social and political content into a form that was mostly rapping about parties and pussy, and it did so with an astute, commanding MC (Chuck D), an engaging court jester (Flavor Flav), and producers (the Bomb Squad) who engineered the sonically brilliant albums It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet. PE's heyday was fairly brief, but its blending of lyrical substance and technical polish packed a wallop that is lasting and influential.


9. Madonna


(Number 16 on VH-1's list.)


She's never been a great singer, and it's not unfair to say that her greatest talent has been her ambition, but Madonna has successfully reinvented herself so many times that she makes David Bowie look as if he's stuck in a rut. Not only has Madonna been able to keep her finger on the public pulse, she has always chosen her collaborators wisely (musically, anyway—films are another matter), and together they established any number of personae for her, from Boy Toy to "Material Girl" and beyond. You know the hits—everything from "Like a Virgin" to "Express Yourself" to "Ray of Light," with surprisingly weighty stops like "Papa Don't Preach" and "Live to Tell" along the way—but perhaps what clinches her spot on this list has been Madonna's succeeding, on her own provocative terms, as a woman in a male-dominated business and thus inspiring countless female musicians. That makes the hits simply icing on the cake.


8. Led Zeppelin


(Number 3 on VH-1's list.)


In the last 30 years, only hip-hop has rivaled heavy metal as the planet's most popular musical form, and while the roots of metal plumb various depths, the strongest root is always this British hard-rock icon—and with good reason: Led Zeppelin combined talent and innovation with enormous influence and popularity all the more auspicious for its lack of hit singles—this band epitomized the term "album rock." Yes, they plundered wholesale the blues catalog and called it their own, but Zep really did invent a rich hard rock style—acoustic ballads and layered epics alongside brutally hard rockers—cited as the inspiration for countless acts to follow. Since the band's demise in 1979, metal has undergone numerous changes, many of which render Zep's style quaint-sounding today, but its monster riffs, pounding rhythm, and intelligent songcraft remain the same influence they've always been.


7. James Brown


(Number 9 on VH-1's list.)


From the 1950s to the 1980s, the Godfather of Soul had been at the forefront of pop innovation so many times that hip-hoppers continue to sample him today. James Brown shouted and shimmied from hard-edged 1950s R&B ("Please Please Please") to brash, almost jazzy 1960s soul ("Papa's Got a Brand New Bag") to gritty 1970s funk ("Sex Machine") with a bold style, heaving passion, and sweaty energy that is as contagious as it is influential. Brown's backing bands, notably the Famous Flames and then the JBs, were no less crucial to his success and influence. Hip-hop artists continue to honor him through liberal sampling, but before some of them were even born white British Mods were singing Brown's praises, indicating his crossover appeal; indeed, the uber-Mod band the Who covered two of Brown's songs on its debut album. Moreover, the appeal of the live album, a staple of white classic rock, stems from Brown's landmark 1962 set Live at the Apollo, a bravura performance that still sounds fresh today.


6. The Rolling Stones


(Number 4 on VH-1's list.)


Although the "world's greatest rock and roll band" has been getting by on pure professionalism since the mid-1970s, the Rolling Stones remain the archetypal rock and roll outfit. They began as the greatest white practitioners of blues and R&B before becoming the epitome of a hard-rock band, with any number of American acts—from Aerosmith and Lynyrd Skynynd through Guns N' Roses and even Pearl Jam—trying to emulate their power and mystique on this side of the Atlantic. Singer Mick Jagger and his guitar-wielding foil Keith Richard personified swaggering rock frontmen, unconventionally sexy and vaguely dangerous, while drummer Charlie Watts and bassist Bill Wyman supplied the thumping, unerring pulse of rock and roll; together with a rotating guitarist's chair (first Brian Jones, then Mick Taylor, and lastly Ron Wood), they yielded some of the greatest songs in the rock canon: "Satisfaction," "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Sympathy for the Devil," "You Can't Always Get What You Want," "Tumbling Dice," and a host of others.


5. Ray Charles


(Number 43 on VH-1's list.)


There was a reason why they called him a genius: By wedding the soaring emotionalism of gospel with the gritty sensuality of rhythm and blues, Ray Charles invented, almost single-handedly, soul music, an enormously popular and resilient style that still survives today as "urban" and "modern R&B." That alone elevates Charles to exalted status, but Charles's independence and resourcefulness—all the more impressive for his blindness—inspired another genius, Stevie Wonder, who in turn inspired yet another self-contained genius, Prince. Crossover appeal? Brother Ray not only recorded with jazz artists, he recorded a popular country and western album and made it swing. And while his greatest tracks are his groundbreaking 1950s Atlantic sides ("What'd I Say," "I Got a Woman," "Lonely Avenue"), Charles is best-known for his 1960s hits "Hit the Road, Jack," "Georgia on My Mind," and his touching rendition of "America, the Beautiful." Charles's impact on popular music is simply too titanic to ignore.


4. Bob Dylan


(Number 5 on VH-1's list.)


The greatest lyricist of the rock era, Bob Dylan had only a smattering of hits himself, although his powerfully evocative songs proved to be commercial godsends for numerous artists including Stevie Wonder; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Manfred Mann, the Byrds, and Jimi Hendrix, who simply seized "All along the Watchtower" and made it irrevocably his own. But Dylan's influence transcends commercial appeal. It permeates both popular music and the culture that spawned it. As the most inspired songwriter of his generation, with lyrics of richness and complexity that opened whole new vistas of expression for the multitudes to follow, Dylan single-handedly changed the face of popular music. He combined folk's topical narratives with rock and roll's directness and power to produce a whole new style, and he articulated a broad range of topics, both personal and social, that had previously been suppressed or deemed unworthy of coverage, and that echoed the feelings of a generation seeking liberation and growth.


3. The Beatles


(Number 1 on VH-1's list.)


I've never been a Beatles fan. Despite the band's obvious innovation and universal influence, they consistently displayed a glossy superficiality that rendered them pop craftsmen, not artists. However, the Beatles are the most significant band in rock history. Their international arrival by 1964 was the most momentous occurrence of the rock era since the advent of Elvis Presley himself because they, like Elvis, inspired countless kids to become rock musicians while establishing, once and for all, rock music's universal dominance. Moreover, the Beatles demonstrated an increasingly sophisticated musical development throughout their lifespan, from hard-edged pop-rock to folk-rock to hippie psychedelia and the early stirrings of progressive-rock, before the growing divisiveness between principal songwriters John Lennon (the angry intellectual) and Paul McCartney (the pop sentimentalist) yielded the band's last real group effort, Abbey Road. And in the end, the Beatles might be more style than substance, but they are discounted only to your own detriment.


2. Chuck Berry


(Number 25 on VH-1's list.)


The architect of rock and roll, Chuck Berry laid the foundation for rock music through three pioneering accomplishments: He synthesized disparate musical strands, from blues and R&B to country and western to pop songs, into an instantly recognizable—and enormously influential—sound; he penned dozens of witty, articulate songs that defined a generation and have been endlessly recycled (the Rolling Stones are inconceivable without Berry); and he established the guitar as the dominant form of rock instrumental expression. Berry's creative period lasted only a decade, and his only chart-topper was a throwaway song ("My Ding-a-Ling") recorded past his prime, but the fact that he influenced virtually every significant rock artist of the 1960s—notably the Stones, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Bob Dylan—who in turn influenced countless others makes Berry one of the most important artists of the rock era. Berry's songs are more than a half-century old, but they remain the building blocks of what you hear today.


1. Elvis Presley


(Number 8 on VH-1's list.)


We wouldn't be having this "discussion" without Elvis, and thus it is unfathomable how the King of Rock and Roll could be anywhere else but at the top of this list. At the birth of the music, Presley transformed rock and roll from a rude and possibly transitory aberration into a lasting cultural phenomenon, and then he transcended that categorization to become an American icon. David Bowie, Madonna, and Michael Jackson (who married Presley's daughter Lisa Marie), among many others, would be inconceivable without Presley. It didn't hurt that Presley not only had a gorgeous voice but was a consummate interpreter, putting his undeniable stamp on every song he sung. When Presley burst onto the international stage in the 1950s, he inspired countless youngsters to become rock musicians at a time when rock was considered a fad destined to pass soon. Presley's unparalleled impact on not only pop music but pop culture makes his appearance at the top of this list not only unsurprising but compulsory.




In an attempt to give more weight to the claim of the "greatest artists of all time," I dig back to the generally agreed-upon birth of modern music of the Western tradition, which is the start of the Baroque Era. The rankings below are strictly chronological, from earliest to most recent.


1. Johann Sebastian Bach


(Not on VH-1's list.)


Given his primacy in Western classical music, it's tempting to label Johann Sebastian Bach the Father of Modern Western Music, with "modern" understood to begin with the Baroque Era in 1600. The melodic and harmonic appeal in both Bach's greatest and more modest works cloaks the structural complexity that marks him as one of Western music's premier architects; listeners are merely lulled by the charm of signature pieces like "Air on the G String" and the Brandenburg Concerto (No. 2), roused by the brashness of Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, or moved by the inspiration of "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," let alone Bach's religious masterwork, Mass in B Minor (with its well-known "Kyrie" passage). J.S. Bach's enduring legacy and abundant listenability more than 400 years later place him among the greatest musical artists ever, at least in the Western tradition. Further proof? Bach's works have withstood modern interpretations such as Walter (now Wendy) Carlos's bestselling 1968 album Switched-On Bach, which realizes several Bach pieces exclusively on the Moog synthesizer.


2. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart


(Not on VH-1's list.)


Wolfgang Mozart wasn't just the rock star of his own musical period, the Classical Era—thanks to the Milos Forman film Amadeus, he is the reigning rock star of all of classical music. With ample reason: Leaving aside the myths and legends, Mozart really did seem to live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking body of music for the ages. Mozart embraced an amazing array of musical forms—from string quartets and quintets to concertos to operas and symphonies—the best of which bore his stamp of relentless logic, enduring elegance, irresistible charm, and sly wit. These qualities manifest themselves in his smaller pieces ("A Little Night Music"), his later symphonies (particularly Nos. 40 and 41 [Jupiter]), and, in arguably his greatest works, his operas The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute, with their farcical, sex-comedy motifs underscored by resentments and class struggle, craftily conveying subversive themes onto their original audience of nobility and high society. "Rock me, Amadeus!"


3. Ludwig van Beethoven


(Not on VH-1's list.)


Singular and intense only begin to characterize Ludwig van Beethoven, a towering figure in Western classical music whose nine completed symphonies epitomize mammoth musical ambition and intelligence combined with overflowing emotion, the inspiration for subsequent composers from Richard Wagner to Gustav Mahler to Igor Stravinsky more than a century later. That Beethoven poured his soul into his art is made more poignant by the cruel irony that he lost his hearing in the last years of his life, yet he continued to produce music of stunning force and beauty. Perhaps the most famous notes in musical history belong to Beethoven—they begin his Fifth Symphony ("da-da-da-DAA!"). Beethoven essayed many other musical forms, from the opera Fidelio to quartet music and piano sonatas (including the famous "Moonlight Sonata"), but his forte remained the symphony, from the aforementioned Fifth to the Third (Eroica), the Sixth (Pastoral), and the juggernaut Ninth (Choral). Beethoven's is arguably the name in classical music, if not all of Western music. No wonder he continued to get shout-outs in modern culture from piano-playing Schroeder in the Peanuts comic strip to Alex's love for "Ludwig van" in A Clockwork Orange to Walter Murphy's disco instrumental "A Fifth of Beethoven," based on the Fifth Symphony.


4. Robert Johnson


(Not on VH-1's list.)


This Delta blues singer and guitarist has the slimmest credentials of anyone on this list. Robert Johnson recorded only forty-odd tracks (several of them alternate versions); being "race records" of the 1930s, none of them sold memorably even in the American South; and Johnson's style was essentially an adroit distillation of several of his contemporaries' styles. Yet Johnson's handful of songs went on to influence not only succeeding generations of blues musicians but, more significantly, generations of rock musicians from the Rolling Stones to Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin; even the Red Hot Chili Peppers have covered Johnson. Johnson's keening, mesmerizing guitar playing matched his tortured, expressive singing about his woes with the world in general and with women in particular—although his wry, bawdy perspective kept his plaints from falling into self-pity—in songs like "Cross Road Blues," "Love in Vain," "Hell Hound on My Trail," "Sweet Home Chicago" and more, each a building block for the blues and rock that would follow after his sweet, short life ended so young.


5. Duke Ellington


(Not on VH-1's list.)


Duke Ellington might be America's greatest composer ever. Certainly he is without peer in jazz, as its most exalted composer—songs such as "Caravan," "Mood Indigo," "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," " Sophisticated Lady," "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)" and many others have been covered numerous times—and as its greatest bandleader: Ellington composed for specific players in his orchestra (for example, "Concerto for Cootie" and "Jeep's Blues"), and he achieved an often imitated but ultimately unique sound using the array of talent at his disposal. Ellington's heyday lasted from the 1920s through the height of the big band-swing era of the 1930s and 1940s, not coincidentally the period of jazz's greatest popularity, and while the birth of be-bop and subsequent styles eclipsed Ellington, he continued to make vital music until his death in 1974. Stevie Wonder's 1977 hit single, the swinging, infectious "Sir Duke," was no accidental tribute—Ellington's influence extended, however indirectly, into the rock and soul era—while classical critics and historians consider Ellington to be the greatest miniaturist since Schubert and Schumann. Ellington was, indeed, beyond category.


6. Frank Sinatra


(Not on VH-1's list.)


The front-runner as the greatest entertainer of the 20th century, Frank Sinatra began as a seminal jazz singer in Tommy Dorsey's swing orchestra—one who established the primacy of the vocalist in a musical combo, a trait perpetuated in the Rock Era, while introducing sex appeal to a generation of squealing women—before becoming a pop icon, Oscar-winning movie star, and all-around A-list celebrity. Sinatra's best-known musical periods are the 1950s, when he recorded for Capitol ("Young at Heart," "Love and Marriage"), and the 1960s, when he formed his own label, Reprise ("Fly Me to the Moon," the epochal "It Was a Very Good Year"), both periods marked by the lush, romantic stylings of arrangers that included Nelson Riddle, Axel Stordahl, and Neal Hefti. But Sinatra had first established himself as a genuine jazz singer with Dorsey, combining the Italian bel canto style of his predecessors with the jazz phrasing and improvisation of his contemporaries, and even a cursory listen to his sides for RCA Victor and especially Columbia ("All or Nothing at All," "I'll Never Smile Again") will reinforce Sinatra's enduring impact on music.


7. Miles Davis


(Not on VH-1's list.)


There have been better technically proficient jazz trumpeters than Miles Davis, the first and greatest of whom being Louis Armstrong, but as a player, bandleader, and composer, Davis is peerless. And as Armstrong spearheaded his stylistic revolution, "hot" jazz, before becoming a pop star ("Hello, Dolly," "What a Wonderful World"—filmdom's go-to sappy shortcut), Davis too found himself a stylistic innovator—several times over. From his beginnings as a be-bop pioneer, Davis appeared at the forefront of post-bop, the "birth of the cool," fusion, and post-fusion, able to cover, decades apart, Rodgers and Hart's "My Funny Valentine" and Cyndi Lauper's "Time after Time" with equal aplomb. Like Ellington, Davis maximized the ability of his collaborators and sidemen—just about everyone who played with Davis during his fusion period (Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, et al), for instance, went on to greatness in his own right. The jazz artist with the largest influence on rock and soul, Davis is one of the greatest figures in 20th century music, and by extension in all of Western music.


8. Ray Charles


(Number 43 on VH-1's list.)


As a singer, instrumentalist, and composer, Ray Charles was formidable enough, but because he practically invented soul music single-handedly, and because that soul music of the 1950s and 1960s has continued to inform urban and modern R&B to this day, Charles must be seen as one of the greatest musical figures in all of Western music. Not convinced yet? Charles not only proved himself to be an advocate for American music, not simply soul or rhythm and blues, with his embrace of jazz, country and western, and straight pop, he put his own singular stamp on everything he touched. Charles's greatest accomplishment was uniting the spiritual fervor of gospel music with the secular sensuality of rhythm and blues to create soul music, but by encompassing the gamut of American music, exemplified by his renditions of "Georgia on My Mind" and "America, the Beautiful," he reinforced the universality and appeal of all types of music. Not bad for a blind African-American man from the segregationist South.


9. Elvis Presley


(Number 8 on VH-1's list.)


Like Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley experienced a similar career path, first as a singing sensation and sex symbol before becoming a film star and cultural icon. And like Sinatra, the fact that Presley remains such a musical force without ever having written a song or established himself as an instrumentalist is a remarkable testament to his vocal talent, interpretive ability, and artistic charisma. Without Presley's galvanizing presence in the 1950s, it is very possible that rock and roll would have proved to have been a fad, a rude aberration to the existing musical order that might not have disappeared but would have very likely been held in abeyance instead of becoming the dominant force it remains as to this day. Presley fused various marginal styles—rhythm and blues, rockabilly, gospel—into an instantly appealing sound that inflamed countless listeners and inspired many of those to become rock musicians, thus ensuring that, to borrow Neil Young's lyric, "rock and roll can never die." They don't call Elvis the King for nothing.


10. Chuck Berry


(Number 25 on VH-1's list.)


If Elvis Presley is indeed the King of Rock and Roll, then Chuck Berry is the eminence grise, the power behind the rock and roll throne. Berry is the supreme architect of rock music: He synthesized various musical strands (rhythm and blues, country and western, pop) into an instantly recognizable sound, one sturdy enough to serve as the foundation for numerous artists to follow; he wrote dozens of witty, articulate songs that encapsulated the freedom of youth in post-World War Two America ("Sweet Little Sixteen," "No Particular Place to Go") while also voicing more mature concerns ("The Promised Land," "Too Much Monkey Business") as well as his own ambition ("Johnny B. Goode"); and he established the guitar as the dominant musical instrument in rock. Just by being a direct influence on the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, and especially the Rolling Stones makes Berry's place on this list secure, but his own innovative, endlessly appealing songs are an enduring testament to his musical genius.


Fade Out

There you have it, dear readers—a rant about how lame VH-1's 100 Greatest Artists of All Time really is along with a couple of suggested remedies for what amounted to five hours of utter vacuity (unless you are truly moved by the perceptions of the likes of David Coverdale and Alexa Ray Joel). Like records, though, lists are made to be broken, or at least disputed. Which are the artists you consider to be the greatest, whether of the Rock Era or all time?

Last modified on Thursday, 19 March 2015 18:47

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