Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Music Gods

In my previous article, I discussed the list of top 885 artists ever (across all genres) being conducted by WXPN in Philadelphia (see here). I was fairly bothered by the staff picks, because I believe that people working for a radio station have a moral responsibility to be intelligent about their industry – and putting Guster or Los Lobos as a top 10 artist ever is pretty irresponsible to me.

All that being said, I’ve been engaged in a few good dialogues of the course of the last few days to actually answer the question for myself – who are the top 10 artists of all time? As we progressed, I realized that having a numbered, ranked, list is not very meaningful. When it comes down to it, does it really mean much that Beethoven was better or worse than Bach? All that really matters is to understand that they were 2 of the greats in the stadium of music. With that, I decided that it’s more practical to create a categorized list rather than an indexed list – call it “the immortals”. This should be a list of manageable size, say, 15-20 artists tops, that when all is said and done, if asked to name 15 of the greatest music artists in the time period of 1600-today, these are the names you would throw out.

In order to construct this set, it’s important to understand the factors that lead someone to garner consideration. To me, there are a variety of these factors that comprise an immortal, including (but not limited to): influence over others, innovation of music, mastery of performance, mastery of composition, cultural impact, and overcoming challenges doing so. Generally, the ability to progress music (make musical “leaps”) and your mastery of composition and performance are weighted the heaviest in the overall picture. I’m hoping that the reasoning behind that is obvious – it all comes down to how good a musician you were and what impact you left behind to the world of music.

What does “overcoming challenges” mean? In some cases, it’s as big as deprivation of senses, such as hearing (Beethoven) or sight (Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder). In other cases, it could be racism, poverty, or other factors preventing their music from being distributed to wider audiences. Do any of these really affect the music itself? Not necessarily, but when you’re thinking about a consummate artist, you realize that ability to create good music is important, but doing so against odds demonstrates an even higher level of connection with the craft. Please understand, though, that what is key is that this music that was produced “against the odds” has to have been on the highest order. If Beethoven composed “average” music, I wouldn’t give him bonus points simply for being deaf. These “challenges” factor in only after you’ve already shown worth in the other categories.

I apologize in advance, but I’m not going to go into detail about why I put each of the below into the arena. For most, it should be obvious.

The Immortals
Johann Sebastian Bach (classical)
Ludwig Van Beethoven (classical)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (classical)
Duke Ellington (jazz)
Miles Davis (jazz)
Billie Holiday (jazz)
Marvin Gaye (r&b)
Ray Charles (r&b)
Stevie Wonder (r&b)
The Beatles (rock)
Bob Dylan (rock, folk)
Jimi Hendrix (rock)
Black Sabbath (hard rock)
Led Zeppelin (hard rock)
Hank Williams (country)
Bob Marley (reggae)
Robert Johnson (blues)
Public Enemy (rap, hip-hop)
Johnny Cash (country)
BB King (blues)
Elvis Presley (rock, pop)


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