What would music sound like today if Mozart had taken up fox tossing instead of composition? What if Miles Davis had run a hardware store? What if Jimi Hendrix had left his guitar behind to focus on his military career? What if Kurt Cobain had been diagnosed (correctly) with clinical depression and cured with Prozac?
Would the world be a different place?
Let’s say John Lennon calls in sick the day his Quarrymen are scheduled to gig a church picnic. He never meets Paul McCartney, the Beatles never exist and, presumably, neither does much of what we recognize as popular music today.
Fortunately, history is written in vinyl. It cannot be altered. Less fortunately, those noted above are no longer with us. Actually, that’s probably for the best in the case of Mozart, 259 years of age this past month.
Still, those of us alive today are luckier than perhaps we realize. The late 20th century was a wildly inventive and pluralistic time in the history of music. We are the lucky few in the epochal yawning canyon of time to bear direct witness to the invention, proliferation, commoditization, and, eventually, the cultural embedding of infinite forms, genres, subgenres, movements, cultural phenomena, artistic institutions, and canonized figures.
Depending on your age, you may have experienced the birth of EDM, Hip Hop, New Wave, Punk, Funk, Fusion, Disco, Soul, Motown, Rock, Rock and Roll, Salsa, Afrobeat, Bossa Nova, Tropicália, Bebop, Electric Blues, Doo-Wop, Reggae, Ska, Dub, and whatever category you think Weird Al Yankovich fits into.
The point is that at this very moment, as we speak, there are those in our midst who are still alive but who will be survived far into the future by their musical achievements. It is the objective of this list to provide as far-reaching and representative a sampling of our living musical treasures as possible.
Aaaand . . . just so you don’t get your hopes up beforehand, Yankovich didn’t actually make the cut.
Narrowing it down to 50 people was not easy, so we had to start with a few basic qualifications:
So, this one is pretty self-explanatory. In order to be included on this list, you have to be alive or at least not dead. Undead is something of a gray area reserved for guys like Ozzy Osbourne and Iggy Pop. “Dead but presumed living” lacks the necessary empirical basis for inclusion and justifies the absence of Elvis Presley. The reverse is true for those who are living but presumed dead, accounting for Paul McCartney’s eligibility.
(*Our list was originally published in the Spring of 2015. Sadly, since that time, three of these luminaries have passed on, leaving us for that great gig in the sky. Check out our piece In Memoriam of those recently departed.)
The single most essential qualification is the sphere of influence carved out by an individual musician. Influence may be indicated by an artist’s commercial impact, artistic imprint, and overarching vitality to their respective genre. On their own, each of these qualifications may describe countless musicians who didn’t make the list. Selling a lot of records does not alone make one an important artist. Celine Dion, I’m looking in your direction.
Ultimately, through a combination of factors, each artist included here has produced an impact with staying power, if not through sustained individual popularity, then through the sustained permeation of his or her music in the work of others. For instance, nobody hangs out with Chuck Berry anymore, but his riffs are to rock and roll what Shakespeare’s prose is to the theater.
This qualification was among the trickiest to navigate. Importance is dictated by the degree to which an artist is seen as the representative figure in a given genre. This status may be accorded because the individual in question innovated a new form, raised a form to new heights of excellence, subverted the conventions of an existing form, altered the historical course of a form, or rocketed a form to new commercial strata.
There are countless Kings, Queens, Godfathers, and Godmothers on this list. There are also two Princes, which I can assure you is not a Spin Doctors reference. There are virtuosos, studio wizards, and business moguls on this list—those who helped to explore uncharted sounds, redefine sonic textures, and further brand identity in their chosen media.
This means that many included here will be rather advanced in age, some of them retired and more visible through their accomplishments and impact than through their personal presence. In essence, though, this list should serve as a starting point for a truly comprehensive overview of popular music over the past 50 years through the lens of those who shaped it and live to tell.
Relevance concerns the degree to which some musical forms are well-represented here, whereas others appear to be less so. You’ll notice a healthy crop of rock musicians, a decent sampling of hip hop artists, and a handful of pop artists here, but a dearth of classical composers, opera singers, or, let’s say, Tuvan throat singers. All respect to the latter genres (and all apologies to throat-singing enthusiasts), but the periods of greatest, most prolific, and most excellent invention for these genres are many centuries in the past.
To be certain, each of these forms has seen its own bursts of creativity, exploration, and expanded visibility in the last century. And to the extent that is appropriate, some of these moments are accounted for here. But the scales tilt largely toward those figures who helped configure and reconfigure the musical idioms with the greatest artistic and commercial penetration in our recent history.
A note about the many, many painful exclusions that marked the completion of a list like this. I hear you. If I’m reading this list, and I don’t see Roger Waters, Keith Richards, or Michael Stipe, I’m like, “Yo! What gives?”
You’d probably say it in a way that sounds less like Arthur Fonzarelli, but still, you’re probably wondering how we can justify a list that doesn’t have Pink Floyd’s musical architect, the Rolling Stones’ riffmeister, or R.E.M.’s definitive alt-rock frontman.
Stated simply, there’s no way of knowing what the future might have held for Waters had he not partnered with David Gilmour; Keith Richards had Mick Jagger never made his acquaintance; Michael Stipe without Peter Buck’s shimmering guitar work. So how do you include one over the other?
In a list of influential bands, these guys are all over the place. In a list of influential artists, they are but a few of the most difficult cuts here. Others who didn’t make the list were simply the victims of space limitations. For those musicians, many on equal artistic footing with those included here, we promise to revisit and expand this list in the future. It broke my heart to give some of these greats the ax. I’ll make it up to you with the next 50.
But with these excuses behind us, we submit a list for your consideration that attempts to highlight those living giants—some current and some on the cusp of the great beyond—who have had a defining impact on music today. The list here gives us the opportunity to express our appreciation and offer our recognition to those still living who have collectively and individually defined everything we hear today.
No doubt, you’ll have your points of disagreement. You’ll take issue with those that are missing. You’ll take exception to some who are included. But ultimately, you will come away from this list with an encompassing sense of the kaleidoscopic musical rush that has been this past century.
The musicians are listed in alphabetical order, together with information about the principal musical genre they worked in, their country of origin, and their year of birth.
[Note: For a slideshow of these 50 musicians, see our Most Important Living Musicians Slideshow.]
|Find artists by name|
|1. Tony Allen||14. George Clinton||26. Zakir Hussain||39. Johnny Pacheco
|2. Charles Aznavour||15. Ry Cooder||27. B.B. King||40. Dolly Parton
|3. Harry Belafonte||16. James Cotton||28. Carole King||41. Iggy Pop
|4. Tony Bennett||17. Danger Mouse||29. Kool Herc||42. Prince
|5. Chuck Berry||18. Dr. Dre||30. Little Richard||43. Prince Buster
|6. Beyoncé||19. Dr. John||31. Madonna||44. A.R. Rahman
|7. Jay-Z||20. Bob Dylan||32. Paul McCartney||45. Smokey Robinson
|8. Bono||21. Aretha Franklin||33. Giorgio Moroder||46. Nile Rodgers
|9. David Bowie||22. Joao Gilberto||34. Ennio Morricone||47. Bruce Springsteen
|10. Garth Brooks||23. Philip Glass||35. Nana Mouskouri||48. Tina Turner
|11. David Bryne||24. Dave Grohl||36. Youssou N'Dour||49. Caetano Veloso
|12. Ron Carter||25. Herbie Hancock||37. Willie Nelson||50. Neil Young
|13. Jimmy Cliff||38. Ozzy Osbourne|
(*Our list was originally published in October of 2015. Since that time, three musicians on our list left us for that great gig in the sky. Check out our piece In Memoriam of those recently departed.)
The 50 Most Important Living Musicians
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1. Tony Allen – Afrobeat
Nigeria of the late ‘60s was bursting with musical invention and political resistance. At the center of this fertile scene was percussionist Tony Allen, the premier drummer and a key architect of the sound known as Afrobeat
Born in Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous city, Allen taught himself to drum. His only formal education was through his father’s record collection, which largely consisted of traditional Yoruba, a form of percussive folk music highly popular throughout West Africa. While working as an engineer for a local radio station, Allen was also exposed to American jazz and a burgeoning Ghanaian highlife scene, distinguished by upbeat, Western-inflected, but distinctly African pop music.
Joining with Fela Kuti in 1964, Allen formed highlife combo Koola Lobitas. This collaboration would set both musicians on a path toward legendary status. Following their 1969 tour through a United States riven by protest, Fela, Allen, and company returned home with a new mission.
Renaming his unit Fela and Africa ’70, Kuti adapted a new musical approach that took direct aim at Nigeria’s military dictatorship. With Allen at the kit, Africa ’70 created a highly charged, politically provocative musical hybrid called Afrobeat. Afrobeat turned highlife loose with long instrumental grooves, politically provocative themes, soulful exhortations, and—courtesy of Tony Allen—furiously-paced polyrhythmic beats. Africa ’70 gave way to an explosion of creativity, spawning a legion of like-minded young musicians and proliferating its sound throughout the Caribbean and Latin America.
Over a matter of disputed royalties, Tony Allen departed his bandleader in the late 1970s, taking a few of Fela’s sidemen with him. Allen’s solo career not only continued to expand on the creative terrain occupied by Afrobeat, but also led to his coinage of Afrofunk. Increasingly compelled by the role of western forms like rock, electronic music, and hip hop, Tony Allen has become well-known for his collaborations with younger musicians like Blur’s Damon Albarn, Air, and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
To be certain, the late Fela Kuti was the leading force in the creation of Afrobeat. As bandleader, multi-instrumentalist, singer, and outsized persona, Fela was not just Africa’s most important popular musician, but also a spiritual and political leader fulfilling a role not unlike that which Bob Marley occupied for Jamaica. As his musical foil and the only member of Fela’s band also responsible for authoring his own arrangements, Tony Allen is a key architect without whom there would be no Afrobeat.
Allen continues to assert his relevance to date. With more than 70 records already under his belt as a bandleader, sideman, and collaborator, Allen earned widespread acclaim for a solo album released just last year, at age 74.
2. Charles Aznavour – Chanson/French Pop
Frank Sinatra may no longer be with us, but we still have France’s equivalent. Charles Aznavour is among history’s most prolific and successful vocal artists and a revered figure in French pop music. The French-Armenian is also, in all probability, the most famous individual of Armenian descent in the world.
Born in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood of Paris’s sixth arrondissement (the epicenter of the Existentialist movement in the 1950s), Aznavour’s life in entertainment was determined early on. He dropped out of school at the age of nine to focus on performing. The bold choice allowed him to hone his skills as an actor, singer, and dancer before he even entered his teens. When he was old enough, he transitioned into nightclub singing and was a seasoned pro at 22 when the legendary Édith Piaf discovered the tenor and invited him on tour.
Piaf would be a tremendous influence on Aznavour, who opened frequently for her at the iconic Moulin Rouge. She helped the young singer train his voice, ultimately preparing for his development into one of the most prolific vocalists of the 20th Century. Once the hits started coming, they came fast and furious. What’s more, they never let up. Aznavour’s versatility as a singer was highlighted by his multilingualism, a fact which allowed him to record songs in no fewer than seven languages.
His discography is a thing of humbling enormity. In 1953, Aznavour began a run of productivity that, at present, includes 50 studio albums, 58 EPs, 18 Live albums, more than 180 million units sold, more than 80 films acted, and an estimated total of 1200 songs written.
Aznavour is as well recognized for his efforts as an Armenian statesman and dignitary. In addition to being a member of the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, Aznavour is a Permanent Delegate of Armenia to UNESCO and the U.N., as well as Armenia’s ambassador to Switzerland. Voters around the world also saw fit, in 1998, to name him as Entertainer of the Century in a CNN/Time Magazine poll.
Still, more remarkable than any of these accomplishments is the fact that in 2014, at the ripe age of 90, Aznavour embarked on his most recent tour.
3. Harry Belafonte – Calypso
Harry Belafonte’s remarkable career as a singer and entertainer is surpassed only by his accomplishments as an advocate for human rights. Born in Harlem, Belafonte lived with his grandmother in her native Jamaica during his formative years, where he was exposed to traditional Caribbean music. Returning to New York in his teens, Belafonte graduated from George Washington High School before serving in the U.S. Navy during WWII.
Belafonte signed to Victor in 1952, but made his first big splash with Calypso in 1956. The LP brought both the singer and Caribbean music to a significantly wider audience, becoming the first album in U.S. history to sell one million copies in a year and earning Belafonte his title as “King of Calypso.”
This marked America’s first mainstream exposure to music of the Caribbean and prefigured its eventual infusion into jazz, R&B, and rock. Songs like “Banana Boat (Day-O)” and “Jump in the Line” became hi-fi party staples. As Belafonte enjoyed widespread critical and commercial success, he also became an uncompromisingly vocal participant in the Civil Rights movement. He refused to perform in the segregated South during the late 1950s and established a meaningful friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr.
In fact, Belafonte constantly placed himself on the front lines for such moments, performing at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, becoming a leading critic of Apartheid in South Africa, roundly lambasting America’s foreign policies during the War on Terror, and serving his post as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador since 1987.
In addition to becoming the figure most closely identified with calypso music, even to the present day, Belafonte dedicated his career to exploring Western music in all its forms, dabbling in blues, gospel, folk, and standards to equal acclaim. Over a recording, performing, and acting career spanning a staggering seven decades, Belafonte has been the recipient of an Emmy, a Tony, three Grammys (a Lifetime Achievement Award among them), and a National Medal of Arts.
4. Tony Bennett – Vocal Jazz
Tony Bennett is the last of the great crooners. Born into an Italian family in the ethnic enclave of Astoria, New York, the young Tony Benedetto got his first look at show business in the days of vaudeville, where his uncle was a tap dancer. Though his family endured the Great Depression in bitter poverty, his parents instilled in him a love for art, literature, and music.
Tony began his music career at a young age, working as a singing waiter in nearby Italian restaurants. Though he studied music formally at New York’s School of Industrial Art, hard times forced him to drop out and pursue paying work at 16. Even as he worked a series of menial day jobs, Benedetto continued to gig at night right up until being drafted into the U.S. Army in 1944. Benedetto saw heavy combat as an infantryman in France and Germany toward the end of the war and even took part in the liberation of a Nazi Concentration Camp.
In spite of the nightmarish experience he endured on the battlefront, the G.I. Bill made it possible for Tony to study at the American Theatre Wing upon his discharge in 1946. Though Tony managed a few recordings without registering on the pop radar, he did come to the attention of the rising Broadway star Pearl Bailey. She invited Tony to open for her. He did so and, as fortune would have it, performed to a house that included a summarily impressed Bob Hope.
Hope dubbed the young singer Tony Bennett and invited him on tour. The following year, he signed to Columbia Records and launched into a decade of dramatic success. With hits like “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Blue Velvet,” and “Rags to Riches,” Bennett established himself as a suave and sophisticated counterpoint to Sinatra’s streetwise tough guy.
The result was something of a cultural phenomenon. Before there was Elvis, before the Beatles, Tony Bennett’s appearances in the pre–rock and roll era were known to attract gaggles of shrieking female fans.
In the late ‘50s, Bennett also earned musical credibility beyond the Billboard landscape, recording with leading jazz masters like Herbie Mann, Art Blakey, and Chico Hamilton. This credibility may also account for his ability to remain relevant into the early ‘60s, even after the first surge of rock and roll. Indeed, 1962 would be a landmark year for Bennett, who headlined a star-studded bill at Carnegie Hall, performed at the opening broadcast of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, and released what remains his signature song, the breezy and perfectly evocative “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Tony Bennett enriched his legacy by successfully courting the MTV audience. Appearances on the Late Show With David Letterman, the Simpsons, and MTV Unplugged suddenly made Tony Bennett hip again.
It also garnered a resurgence of attention, acclaim, and recognition for the aging star. Indeed, the last 20 years have been something of a victory lap for Bennett, who continues not only to perform into his 80s but to collect all manner of accolades. He is the winner of an astonishing 17 Grammy Awards, two Emmys, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He also continues to surprise audiences by collaborating with major contemporary artists like K.D. Lang, Christina Aguilera, and Lady Gaga.
5. Chuck Berry – Rock and Roll
His guitar riffs may be among the most important and imitated sounds of the late 20th Century. His musical output in the mid-to-late ‘50s made him among the most consequential architects of rock and roll and laid the foundation for the generation of rockers to come. Born to a middle-class St. Louis family, Chuck Berry’s development benefited from the rich musical tapestry around him. Though never formally educated in music, he absorbed the soul of the bluesmen, the showmanship of the R&B shouters, and the crossover appeal of the hillbilly country singers that surrounded him.
By the time he was attending Sumner High School in the early ‘40s, he was performing in public with his own R&B combo. His professional development would be put on hiatus starting in 1944 as he served a three-year prison sentence for armed robbery. This would be Berry’s first major encounter in a life filled with legal scrapes and less-than-savory behavior.
On the bright side, his time in prison gave him a chance to focus on his singing. So excellent was the vocal quartet he fronted that they even booked a few gigs outside the prison walls. This was not exactly his big break, though. That wouldn’t come until 1955, when he signed with Chess Records.
With “Maybellene,” his very first single, Berry had a million-seller, an R&B #1, and a #5 on the mainstream charts. It was also the first in a string of crossover hits. In addition to his silver-tongued wordplay, incendiary fretwork, and flashy stage presence, Berry dealt in themes that were in perfect harmony with a surging youth culture. Songs about girls, cars, and school were omnipresent in his performances. Over the next five years, Berry released “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and “Johnny B. Goode.” This is basically the rock and roll equivalent of Prometheus gifting fire to humanity.
His influence may well have achieved an even greater reach beginning in the mid-‘60s, when a new crop of musicians on both sides of the Atlantic began knowingly and proudly stealing his licks. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Beach Boys—arguably the three most consequential rock bands of their time—all explicitly declared their debt to Berry. His songs were an important keystone in each band’s early performing repertoire and his incisive lead-in riffs were unabashedly co-opted in their early (and massively successful) songwriting exploits. Even as rock entered its more experimental phase in the late ‘60s, Berry’s songbook remained a necessary building block for every aspiring guitarist.
In many ways, Berry’s important musical accomplishments were at an end by the early ‘60s—and yet any discussion of the idiom which dominated popular music through the next four decades absolutely must begin with Chuck Berry. Indeed, he was a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s inaugural class of inductees, making him Ty Cobb to Elvis Presley’s Babe Ruth.
6. Beyoncé – Rhythm & Blues
7. Jay-Z – Hip Hop
So, we admit that we’re cheating a bit on this one. Both Beyoncé and Jay-Z command enough influence and importance in music today that either justifies an individual entry on this list. However, taken together, Jay and Bey comprise the most powerful couple in music today, possibly ever. R&B’s most dynamic singer and live performer, Beyoncé Knowles had already established herself as, arguably, the most successful artist of the decade before marrying rap superstar and business mogul Jay-Z in 2008. Together, the couple keeps company with President Obama and has a shared net worth of nearly $1 billion. They can also sleep soundly at night knowing that they have, both separately and together, shaped the face of popular music in the 21st Century.
Houston-born Beyoncé demonstrated tremendous vocal range from an extremely young age, rising through a circuit of talent shows both on her own and with a series of all-girl singing combos. She made music the primary focus of her education at both the High School for the Performing and Visual arts and Alief Elsik High School. By 1996, performing under the name Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé and company earned a contract with Columbia Records. Starting with their self-titled debut in 1998, Destiny’s Child began a three year run of chart success and award show recognition. However, Beyoncé emerged as the trio’s clear superstar, ultimately leading to the group’s split.
By the time Beyoncé was ready for a solo career, Shawn Carter was already one of the most successful artists in history. Born and raised in a housing project in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, Carter attended the George Westinghouse Career and Technical Education High School. Though Carter did not graduate, legend has it he engaged in lyrical battles during lunch break with a young Christopher Wallace, the future Biggie Smalls. Early mentors for the emergent rapper include Jaz-O, an inspiration for his performing moniker, and old school guru Big Daddy Kane, who gave Carter his first gig. Unable to secure a contract, Jay-Z formed his own Roc-A-Fella Records in 1995 and released his landmark debut, Reasonable Doubt, the following year. It announced the arrival of a major force in the game, featuring appearances by Biggie and paving the way for a deal with Def Jam.
Though in mourning over Biggie’s drive-by shooting death in 1997, Jay-Z teamed with Puff Daddy for the platinum followup, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. Over the ensuing five years, Jay-Z emerged as the top rapper in the business and, through the increasingly powerful status of Roc-A-Fella, a top businessman as well. Hugely successful collaborations with Mariah Carey, Ja Rule, and UGK also helped make Jay-Z a crossover star during rap’s ascension into uncontested Billboard dominance. His work also showcased up-and-coming talents like Kanye West, the Neptunes, and most importantly, a recently solo Beyoncé.
The two teamed together on his “03 Bonnie & Clyde” and her “Crazy in Love.” The former was a hit but the latter was an absolute smash, marking Beyoncé’s first visit to Billboard’s top spot, which she occupied for eight weeks. Selling more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, the song is one of the best-selling singles of all time. More importantly, these collaborations marked the beginning of an enduring romantic partnership for the pair.
More than a decade later, they are a model of matrimonial fortitude and equal partnership. With roughly 135 million records sold, 17 Grammys snagged, and more than $400 million in net worth, Beyoncé is at once the top-selling female artist of the millennium, the most frequently nominated Grammy winner ever, and the highest-paid black musician in history. With more than 100 million records sold, 19 Grammys snagged, and a record 13 #1 albums charted, Jay-Z is among the most-decorated and commercially successful rappers of all time. Together, they are the music industry’s most unstoppable force.
8. Bono – Rock
Paul Hewson is one of the most famous people in the world. Of course, you know him better as Bono, lead singer of the Irish stadium behemoth, U2. Behind the trademark bug-eyed sunglasses and golden falsetto is one of the most visible and accomplished figures in music history. His constant humanitarian efforts, his working relationship with presidents and prime ministers, and the world-conquering success of his band’s albums and tours make Bono a figure of towering cultural importance beyond his music. But of course, U2’s music also casts a shadow as long as its 35-year history.
Paul was born to a religious family in Dublin, Ireland. His spiritual upbringing would figure prominently into his life and music. But his real evolution as a musician came when he began attending the Mount Temple Comprehensive School, where he met his future bandmates and earned the nickname Bonovox (translated from the Latin for “good voice”). Bono and his mates found that they weren’t particularly good at covering the Stones or Beach Boys, so they began writing their own compositions. Taking their name in 1976, U2 managed a contract with Island Records and released Boy in 1980. Their debut earned critical praise for Bono’s impassioned delivery and the band’s militant post-punk frankness. Minor Billboard success only hinted at the band’s achievements over the coming decade.
From the political pointedness of 1983’s War to the the proto alt-country majesty of 1987’s The Joshua Tree to the electrofunk undercurrent of 1991’s Achtung Baby, U2 was arguably the most important rock band of the decade. Their stadium-filing tours, airwave-dominating singles, and album-oriented precision made the band, and particularly their frontman, a global phenomenon. Ultimately, the elements of punk, new wave, and arena rock that U2 fused together became a sound all their own, and one to which future stadium acts like Radiohead, Coldplay, and Muse owe an incalculable debt.
Over the course of the ‘90s, U2 redefined the enormity and spectacle of the live rock show. Playing to ever-larger audiences, the band dedicated its considerable resources to creating an enveloping sonic and visual experience even for audiences numbering in the tens of thousands. As a singer, Bono elevated the bar first set by Mick Jagger, using his tremendous passion and charisma to create intimacy in even the most expansive venues.
As the frontman of U2, Bono is the chief lyricist and, without question, the reason its albums have shipped to the tune of 150 million worldwide. They are also the recipients of a stunning 22 Grammy Awards and an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Bono may also be rock’s greatest humanitarian. His efforts at promoting debt relief for developing nations and his work to spotlight poverty in Africa have granted him a key to the White House and perhaps even a genuine impact on global policy. Time magazine named him 2005’s Person of the Year.
9. David Bowie – Rock
Update: David Bowie’s death in January of 2016 shocked the world. Bowie had privately battled cancer but ultimately succumbed to the illness at the age of 69. He released his final full-length record, Lazarus, the week he died.
There are few figures who can be said to have advanced the imagery, theatricality, and artistic palette of rock music as has David Bowie. Over the course of his 50-year career, Bowie has constantly redefined himself, undertaking complete reinvention of his music, his appearance, and the characters that he himself has inhabited. Known alternately as “Ziggy Stardust,” “The Thin White Duke,” “The Dame,” and quite a few others, perhaps his reputation as the “Rock and Roll Chameleon” is most fitting. Bowie’s tremendous influence is based as much on his ability to create music of both artistic and commercial merit as for the role he played in shattering expectations of what a rock star should be.
Born in the Brixton district of South London, young David Jones was a gifted but rebellious child. At the age of nine, he found an outlet for that rebellion. His father returned from a trip to America with a clutch of rock and roll 45s. Among them were Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, and Little Richard. The music changed his life. He took up the ukulele and began performing with his friends. Even then, his provocative stage presence captivated classmates and teachers at the Bromley Technical High School.
In the early ‘60s, Bowie took on his stage name to avoid confusion with Davy Jones of the Monkees (imagine making that mistake!). In 1969, Bowie tapped into the global psyche by releasing the single “Space Oddity” just five days ahead of the Apollo 11 launch. The majestic interstellar tragedy hit #5 in the U.K.
In 1972, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars would deliver Bowie to superstardom. A concept album centering around an androgynous rock and roll messiah from another planet, performances of Ziggy saw Bowie and his band donning elaborate Martian costumes and playing with spaced-out majesty. As Bowie shot to stardom, his seemingly paradoxical cross-dressing machismo established a template for image-conscious glam, punk, new wave, and hair metal bands yet to come.
Through the ‘70s and ‘80s, Bowie enjoyed continued success on both the album and singles charts in spite of his willful tendency to veer sharply off course of his previous triumphs. From the “plastic soul” of his mid-70s work, to the German minimalism of his late-70s albums, to his New Romantic pop in the early-80s, Bowie sustained an enviable relationship with the Billboard charts. Still, his musical curiosity never waned.
Over the course of his career, Bowie has sold something in the range of 140 million albums worldwide, amounting to nine Platinum records in the U.K. and five in the U.S. Bowie is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and, though offered the title of Commander of the British Empire and Knighthood in 2000 and 2003 respectively, Bowie declined both.
10. Garth Brooks – Modern Country
Garth Brooks is as responsible as any one musician for the sound known as modern country. Never a favorite among discerning music snobs (and particularly not during the phase of his career when he inexplicably assumed the identity of glam rocker Chris Gaines), Brooks nonetheless achieved a level of mainstream commercial success theretofore unseen in his genre—or any other, for that matter. Taking country music from the pickup trucks and dirt roads south of the Mason-Dixon Line into the suburban living rooms of Yankees everywhere, his accessible themes, lovelorn honk, and lite-FM rock riffs nationalized country music.
The Tulsa-born Brooks excelled as an athlete in high school and earned a track scholarship to Oklahoma State University. He competed in javelin and graduated with a degree in advertising in 1984. Though Brooks enjoyed country music, his first love was sensitive singer-songwriter soft rock like James Taylor and Dan Fogelberg. This influence would serve him well when he moved to Nashville in search of fame.
He would find it quickly with his self-titled debut in 1989. The album reached #2 on the country charts and 13th on Billboard, launching the most successful country album career in history. The following year’s No Fences spent 23 consecutive weeks at #1 on the country charts and peaked at #3 on the pop charts. The next year, Ropin’ in the Wind became the first country album to debut at #1 on the country charts.
In three short years, Brooks was a household name. His trademark headset microphone and slickly produced stage show outfitted country music’s blue collar anthems and patriotism with arena rock panache and ambition. Brooks joined the storied Grand Ole Opry in 1990 and carried country music into a new stratosphere of sales, in the process driving the Nashville sound to something more closely resembling arena rock acts like Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel than Hank Williams.
Brooks is a Country Music Hall of Famer, winner of two Grammys, and recipient of 17 American Music Awards, including recognition as “Artist of the ‘90s.” This title is well-deserved, as nobody has sold more than Brooks’s 70 million records since 1989. He is only surpassed on the all-time list by the Beatles and Elvis Presley.